TRI-CITIES, Wash. — The Department of Energy and its regulators have agreed to new legally binding environmental cleanup deadlines for radioactive waste that has been temporarily buried at central Hanford since 1970.
The proposed new package of deadlines would allow more time for some work but also add new deadlines DOE must meet. They include the first-ever deadlines for when some of the waste must be shipped to a national repository in New Mexico and a final cleanup deadline for some of the most difficult-to-handle solid waste, which Hanford now lacks the capabilities to prepare for disposal.
“We’ve come up with a change package that satisfies the interest of DOE, Ecology and the public,” said Deborah Singleton, project manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology. The state and the Environmental Protection Agency are Hanford regulators.
“There was some give and take on both sides,” she said.
The tentative agreement completes a round of proposed deadline changes for central Hanford and ground water cleanup that have been in discussion since January 2009.
As getting most cleanup of Hanford along the Columbia River completed by 2015 has become a top priority, money and resources have shifted to work along the river, making it more difficult for DOE to meet deadlines for central Hanford cleanup. In addition, some of the work in central Hanford is technically challenging.
A public comment period on the last set of proposed changes begins May 3, and the new deadlines will not become final until after the 45-day comment period ends and comments are considered.
The set of changes covers drums, boxes and cans of debris suspected of containing plutonium that DOE temporarily buried in central Hanford. Then Congress said transuranic waste — typically waste containing plutonium — must be sent to a national repository. But until the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico opened, the waste was buried for later retrieval.
The current deadlines date from 2003, but regulators agreed last year to consider extending them, depending on how much federal economic stimulus money Hanford would receive. Of the $1.96 billion coming to the Hanford nuclear reservation, about $1.3 billion is being spent by CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., which does central Hanford and ground water cleanup.
What is being dug up varies widely, and officials have different sets of milestones for five different waste groupings.
Two types of waste being retrieved are particularly difficult to handle. They include transuranic waste in large boxes, some about the size of a railcar, rather than the typical 55-gallon drums. It also includes research waste packaged in paint-can sized containers that is called “remote-handled” because it is too radioactively hot for workers to get near. Some of it was dropped down slanted chutes to 10-foot-tall boxes, or caissons, buried 14 feet below the ground.
Under the new deadlines, DOE would be required to have all but the remote-handled waste that was temporarily buried dug up by Sept. 30, 2016. Remote-handled waste, including that in four caissons, would need to be dug up by the end of 2018.
DOE already has dug up two-thirds of the waste, most of which is not remote-handled.
DOE would be required to have a conceptual design of facilities that will be used to process the waste in large boxes or needing remote handling by Sept. 30, 2016. A final design would be due two years later.
Under the old deadline, DOE needed to have completed the design for the technically challenging work a little more than two years from now.
Even before the conceptual design is completed, DOE would be required to start treating some of the difficult waste. Some progress may be possible using existing facilities at T Plant, said Matt McCormick, DOE assistant manager for central Hanford.
All the transuranic waste in large containers and remote-handled transuranic waste would need to be treated and shipped to WIPP by the end of 2035, the first time a deadline for completion of that work has been set.
Waste that turns out to be low-level rather than transuranic waste must be treated for disposal by Sept. 30, 2017.
For the transuranic waste that is not in large containers and does not require remote handling, a series of deadlines are proposed with the waste shipped to New Mexico by Sept. 30, 2018.
That gives DOE more time to prepare it for shipment, to allow DOE to focus resources now on higher priority work along the river. It also gives DOE the first deadlines for shipments to WIPP, although 451 shipments already have been made.