Budget crunch slows Hanford clean-up


News staff writer

April 8, 2006

Vast amounts of radioactive waste have been cleaned up at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation — but lowered funding levels and rising costs could make it harder to get the job done.

Nicholas Ceto, Hanford project manager from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, delivered that warning to Hood River County officials last week.

He said the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the Hanford site, is expected to request $1.8 billion in its 2008 budget. That is par with the amount of funding approved by Congress for 2006, and only slightly below the $1.9 billion earmarked for 2007 — but well below the all-time high of $2.1 billion dedicated to the removal of radioactive waste in 2005 and the $2 billion in 2004.

Ceto said money is getting tighter at the same time that labor and material costs at the work site near Richland, Wash., are climbing. He said that is making it more of a challenge for agencies to do a thorough job and still meet the earlier 2025 cleanup deadline, or even the original 2035 completion date.

He said Hanford is competing this year for federal funding with the war in Iraq and the rebuilding of New Orleans and other hurricane-devastated areas of the Gulf Coast.

“This is one of the most important projects you’ll ever see. I really consider cleanup of Hanford as a non-partisan issue,” said Ceto.

“That’s why we’d like a lot of people engaged, a lot of people giving us advice. We certainly have some expensive decisions to make.”

Hanford was built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. The site produced 74 tons of plutonium — 10 pounds required for a bomb — for nuclear weapons through the late 1980s.

In 1989 the focus at Hanford turned to cleanup on heavily contaminated sectors of the 586 square mile property. The hazardous waste slated for removal included plutonium, strontium, uranium, other metals and organic compounds.

“Frankly, they started building before they knew what they were building,” said Ceto. “The point is that cleanup, regardless of what you think of nuclear power and the arms race, should matter to everyone.”

A workforce of 7,000 people is tasked with meeting legal timelines for the cleanup set out in a tri-party agreement between the USDOE, Washington State Department of Ecology and EPA.

USDOE maintains two federal offices at Hanford. The Richland Operations office manages waste retrieval from, and closure of, the 177 underground storage tanks. In addition, that office is supervising construction of a plant — about 30 percent completed — that will turn radioactive and chemical wastes into a stable glass form for disposal.

The Office of River Protection is responsible for cleaning up spent nuclear fuel, remaining plutonium, all buried and solid wastes and both large and small Hanford site facilities.

During the world’s largest environmental cleanup, more than 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel have been packaged and moved away from the Columbia River. Twenty tons of plutonium-bearing materials have been stabilized and packaged for eventual disposal offsite. Five of the nine plutonium reactors have been partially demolished and placed in interim safe storage.

In addition, more than 6.3 million tons of contaminated dirt have been dug up along the Columbia and hauled to a disposal facility in the middle of the Hanford site.

“We’re out there every day in the field making sure the work’s done right; we think it’s that important,” said Ceto.

He said the cleanup effort still has a long way to go. More than 50 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste remain in 174 aging, underground storage tanks. And 25 million cubic feet of solid waste are buried or stored at the site.

Two hundred and seventy billion gallons of groundwater spread out over about 80 square miles are tainted above drinking-water standards.

And more than 1,700 waste sites and about 500 polluted facilities still need to be dealt with, according to Ceto.

He said another challenge waiting in the wings is to assess the deep subsurface defilement and its potential impacts. In addition, he said the involved agencies need to block further migration of chemical “plumes” snaking toward the river through subsurface channels.

“We need more money right now to do further investigations,” he said. “It’s complicated but it’s important. Your kids are going to have to live with it down the road so it’s important to get it right.”

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