KENNEWICK, Wash. — State and federal officials have agreed to new deadlines for cleaning up groundwater and some radioactive waste areas at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, but a lawsuit over other missed deadlines remains in court.
Southeast Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation, created as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II, has been a focus of extensive cleanup efforts for two decades.
In that time, the pact that governs cleanup has been changed more than 400 times, with many delays. The three parties to the pact — the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy — announced an agreement Friday on more proposed changes.
The public will have 45 days to comment on the proposals.
“The good thing is we’re able to come together as parties and come to agreement,” said Matt McCormick, assistant manager of central plateau cleanup for the Energy Department’s Richland Operations Office. “We believe these changes reflect shared vision and priorities.”
Under the agreement, 124 radioactive and hazardous waste sites and 79 facilities along the Columbia River, which borders the Hanford site, would be largely cleaned up by 2015. Contaminated groundwater in various areas near the river and on the site’s central plateau would be contained and the soil cleaned to meet several new deadlines, the latest being 2020.
Among the groundwater contaminants are chromium, strontium, uranium, technetium-99 and carbon tetrachloride. Most are cancer-causing agents.
Each year, the federal government spends roughly $2 billion at Hanford, about one-third of the federal budget for nuclear site cleanup nationwide.
Due to an expected smaller budget in 2009, other cleanup efforts on the site’s central plateau will have to slow down, said Dennis Faulk, EPA project manager. They include retrieval of buried transuranic waste — typically debris such as clothing, equipment and pipes left over from nuclear weapons production — that has been contaminated both with plutonium and hazardous chemicals.
“This was really the first time we had pretty serious budget repercussions we had to deal with. If we wanted to get that work along the river corridor done, we had to give relief somewhere else,” Faulk said. “Getting this mutually agreed to and publicly accepted is really a pretty big deal.”
The agreement also would move the Energy Department closer to its goal of shrinking the 586-square-mile site’s size to just 75 square miles by 2015.
Hanford produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic blast, the Trinity Test, and for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II. The site continued to contribute to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal throughout the Cold War.
The remnants of that effort, 53 million gallons of radioactive brew, are stewing in 177 underground tanks. Some of those tanks are known to have leaked into the aquifer, threatening the river, and 144 tanks remain to be emptied of liquid waste and sludge.
Once retrieved, the waste is to be transported to an onsite plant that will convert it into glasslike logs for permanent disposal underground. Long considered the cornerstone of Hanford cleanup, the plant lags eight years behind schedule and is billions of dollars over budget. The current price tag is $12.2 billion, and the operating date is 2019, far beyond the mandated 2011.
Under the current pact, the entire Hanford site was to be cleaned up by 2035.
The state filed suit in December over missed deadlines to empty tank waste and build the waste treatment plant.
Jane Hedges, nuclear waste program manager for the state Department of Ecology, said that litigation will continue, though state officials and the congressional delegation have reached out to the Obama administration to resolve it.
Some members of Congress also have been pushing for federal stimulus money to be spent on cleaning up Cold War-era sites.
The three parties didn’t assume any stimulus money would be appropriated for Hanford, due to the uncertainty of when it would be available, how much there would be, and any requirements for spending it, the Energy Department’s McCormick said.
“If we do get stimulus money, of course we would go back to the other parties and continue discussions,” he said.