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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Boise

Fed audit says millions wasted to avoid sending Hanford, Wash. jobs to Idaho

An inspector general's audit says the U.S. Department of Energy is spending an extra $25 million because it didn't ship certain radioactive wastes from Hanford to Idaho for processing, in part because Hanford workers protested that the move would shift jobs to Idaho; click below to read the full story from reporter Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald.

Audit finds savings in Hanford waste shipments to Idaho

By Annette Cary
Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.

May 28--HANFORD -- Not shipping certain Hanford radioactive waste to Idaho for processing as earlier planned is costing the nation $25 million in increased costs, according to an audit by the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General.

The Department of Energy questions that, saying that the long-term costs of dealing with that waste at Hanford will be reduced by at least $135 million because the project has been accelerated with federal economic stimulus money.

Similar long-term savings could be achieved by sending the waste to Idaho for processing, the audit countered.

At issue is transuranic waste -- typically debris contaminated with plutonium -- that temporarily was buried at Hanford when Congress ordered a national repository for transuranic waste created in 1970. The waste was buried in drums and boxes until the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico opened as a repository.

In February 2008, the Department of Energy announced a plan to ship as much as 8,500 cubic yards of transuranic waste from Hanford to the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The Idaho facility has automatic compacting equipment for transuranic waste that would allow disposal space at WIPP to be used more efficiently. Sending waste from Hanford to Idaho would avoid the time and expense of establishing similar capabilities at Hanford, DOE said in 2008.

The decision was controversial among some Hanford workers, however. Shipments would have started in November 2008 but were postponed in part because of concerns about transferring jobs to Idaho along with the waste.

Some workers demonstrated in front of the Richland Federal Building, and the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council said sending the work to Idaho would violate organized labor agreements in effect then.

''Currently, however, it appears that there are no concerns about a decreasing work force since Hanford contractors are hiring large numbers of employees to support several major recovery act projects," the audit said.

Hanford officials are planning to ship to Idaho the same amount of waste that had been planned in fall 2008 -- 1,034 drums, or 272 cubic yards of waste -- starting in June. About 87 shipments would be made through the fall.

By not sending more waste to Idaho for processing, DOE is spending $25 million that could be better used for other high-priority environmental cleanup projects, the audit said.

''We recognize the department's responsibility to use recovery act funding to create jobs and stimulate the economy," the audit said. "However, in our view, this does not obviate the need to achieve departmental missions efficiently and effectively."

The current approach to processing much of the transuranic waste at Hanford has not been sufficiently analyzed to confirm it is better than the plan to send it to Idaho, the report said.

Hanford is moving toward a new process for transuranic waste as workers are digging up drums that are in far worse shape than anticipated.

They will be packaging waste from the deteriorated drums into new boxes at the trenches, said Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, in a written response to the DOE Office of Inspector General.

''The revised Hanford waste processing approach and more efficient steps in retrieving and preparing waste for shipment and disposal will result in significant life-cycle costs savings," she said.

DOE officials questioned whether the estimate of $25 million in savings considered that retrieved drums still must go through an assessment process, which includes checks for radiation levels, head space gas sampling and X-rays to see what they contain, before they can be shipped to Idaho.

If they contain prohibited items such as liquids, the drums must be repacked, whether at Idaho or Hanford, DOE said.

Costs of repacking drums with prohibited items were not considered because the Office of Inspector General agreed those drums should remain at Hanford, the audit said.

''However, those waste containers without prohibited items are less expensive to process at (Idaho) due to its highly automated processes for charac- terizing, treating and compacting the waste," the audit said.

There was disagreement between the Office of Inspector General and Hanford officials about what percentage of the drums might include prohibited items.


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(c) 2010, Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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