I wrote a recent article about legal action being taken by the Governor and Attorney General of the State of Washington against the United States Department of Energy. The issue of contention was the failure of the DoE to meet deadlines with respect to emptying a leaking waste storage tank at Hanford and construction of a vitrification plant to sequester nuclear waste in glass logs at Hanford.
There will be a court hearing next February where both sides will get to present their arguments. Both sides are seeking changes in the 2010 consent decree set down by the federal court for the schedule of these particular parts of the Hanford cleanup. The DoE says that the original schedule was too optimistic and the State of Washington has agreed that there is no way that DoE can meet the original schedule. The consent decree settled a 2008 lawsuit about missed deadlines at Hanford. Now in February the court will discuss setting still later deadlines.
DoE argues that it has been unable to meet the consent decree deadlines because of "unforeseen technical and budget issues." DoE was confident that it clearly and completely understood the problems that had to be solved. DoE thought that it knew what had to be done and had created a corresponding budget and schedule that would satisfy the requirements of the consent decree. Included in the plans were solutions to twenty eight technical issues that had been identified in a 2006 review of the Hanford cleanup.
Only two months after the consent decree had been issued, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board came up with more technical issues and called for more tests. In 2012, a DoE employed pointed out that there was still a risk of corrosion in vessels and pipes in the vitrification plant although the DoE thought that they had solved the problem. In 2013, it was discovered that the planned ventilation system might allow toxic gas to leak into areas where people were working. Fixing this is going to require expensive changes to existing systems. DoE is building a new lab to test how to ensure that the waste stream at the vitrification plant is well mixed to prevent nuclear reactions and generation of flammable gas. The tests will take three years and additional time will be required to redesign the vitrification plant system.
The shutdown of the federal government in 2013 over budget issues and the sequester that cut federal spending across the board caused delays and other problems with the Hanford cleanup and the consent decree schedule. DoE says that it does not want to agree to future fixed deadlines because it has learned that the complexity of the job at Hanford makes meeting such deadlines impossible. They admit that, "Despite the application of extraordinary levels of effort and expertise, the project has proved to be far more difficult, and the technical solutions for more elusive, than DoE anticipated." The State of Washington accepts that the job is complex and difficult but still wants some set deadlines.
DoE has been working on cleanup of Hanford for decades. There have been repeated failures to comprehend the complexities and difficulties of cleaning up the Hanford site on the part of the DoE. There have been repeated assurances that DoE knew what it was doing and would be able to meet deadlines which were repeatedly missed. Is DoE capable of cleaning up Hanford or are we destined to witness repeated promises and failures until future budget problems drain the funds needed to clean up Hanford and they just put up a big fence and walk away?