State, feds pause negotiations over Hanford cleanup

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - State and federal officials entered formal negotiations in May over long-stalled projects to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation. Both sides say they've made progress, even as they've paused to gather public comments about proposed delays to ridding the nation's most contaminated nuclear site of waste.

The last meeting between all of the parties was Oct. 22. They've had several public comment sessions and meetings with interested stakeholders since, and more comment is likely at four meetings scheduled later this month and in early December.

However, none of those involved will say when they're likely to embark on negotiations again.

"We made a decision, because of how critical the issues were, that we would take a time out and go out and talk to stakeholders, tribes and interest groups about where we've gotten so far," said Jane Hedges, nuclear waste program manager for the Washington state Department of Ecology. "We have some technical places where we agree, and we wanted to hear what people had to say about them."

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $60 billion.

The 1989 Tri-Party Agreement, a pact signed by the Washington state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages Hanford, provides the framework for cleanup and establishes deadlines. The document has seen numerous changes over the years, but the latest discussions contain some of the most significant deadline changes proposed since its creation.

Among them is the schedule for the vitrification plant, which is being designed to convert millions of gallons of radioactive waste into glasslike logs for permanent disposal. Long considered the cornerstone of Hanford cleanup, the project 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.

The three parties entered negotiations when it became apparent that other key deadlines linked to the plant would not be met.

Related to the plant is a project to retrieve waste that will be processed there. About 53 million gallons of radioactive brew sits in 177 underground tanks, some of which are known to have leaked into the aquifer, threatening the nearby Columbia River.

The new deadlines, as proposed in the negotiations, would delay tank waste cleanup by 24 years to 2052.

Under the current Tri-Party Agreement, the entire Hanford site was to be cleaned up by 2035.

State officials have said they're willing to accept the 2019 start date for the plant - they hardly have a choice after technical problems, a seismic review and escalating costs slowed construction - but want something in return.

However, a delay in tank cleanup shouldn't be another concession, said Susan Leckband, chair of the Hanford Advisory Board, an independent, nonpartisan group with representatives from tribes, Washington and Oregon agencies and conservation groups. And an eight-year delay with the plant doesn't equate to a 24-year delay in tank cleanup.

"These tanks are past their design life now and will be decades past their design life then," she said. "No one expects that they won't leak between now and then."

The board also raised concerns that the Energy Department's upcoming proposed budgets fall short of paying for the work to be done to stay in compliance with the cleanup deal.

The agency's Richland Office alone anticipates a budget shortfall of as much as $5 billion over the 10-year period beginning in fiscal year 2009, the board wrote in a letter to the Energy Department, Ecology Department and EPA.

Delays to the Tri-Party Agreement milestones "should be based only on technical achievability not budget," the board wrote in another letter.

In recent years, Hanford has received about $2 billion each year toward cleanup - one-third of the federal government's entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally, though the agency oversees nuclear cleanup in 14 states.

"Certainly, budget is an issue," said Nick Ceto, EPA's Hanford program manager, declining to comment further.

But Ceto said the public insight to the negotiations will be helpful moving forward.

Regulators have garnered praise for some of their demands that remain under negotiation: heightened groundwater cleanup and a new "life cycle" report, which the Energy Department would be required to create by next fall to outline all Hanford cleanup work.

Hedges said the new report would list all of the work to be done, along with cost and schedule, to help provide a better picture of the Hanford cleanup.

In addition, she said, it could be a tool for elected officials choosing to pay for the cleanup.

"It's hard to describe to Congress and the public what this big elephant is that we're taking big bites out of," Hedges said. "That's the idea of it, that we would have this tool that would tell the story of what it will take to clean up all of Hanford."