Trump team is misguided in its plans for Hanford cleanup, Sen. Murray tells Energy secretary

Sen. Patty Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry sparred Wednesday over whether the Trump administration’s proposed budget for Hanford next year would allow the Department of Energy to meet its legal deadlines for environmental cleanup.

Murray, D-Wash., questioned how cleanup deadlines could be met under the proposed cut of $416 million for the contaminated nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington.

Perry, appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, defended the Hanford cuts, saying he thought the proposed budget was enough to meet legal cleanup deadlines through fiscal 2020.

He referred specifically to deadlines in the federal court-enforced consent decree for emptying leak-prone, single-shell radioactive waste tanks and making progress to prepare the $17 billion vitrification plant to treat tank waste.

“I ‘d like to see the paperwork behind that because I find that highly doubtful,” Murray said.

She questioned how progress could continue on other Hanford projects given proposed cuts.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry toured the HAMMER training center at the Hanford nuclear reservation in August 2017. File Tri-City Herald

Hanford is contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

Murray says safety is an issue

The proposed budget would cut about 12 percent of the money for the DOE Office of River Protection and about 27 percent of the money for the DOE Richland Operations Office, compared to current spending.

The Office of River Protection is responsible for storing and treating 56 million gallons of tank waste at Hanford, and the Richland Operations Office is responsible for all other environmental cleanup work and running the 580-square-mile site.

Murray said that Richland Operations Office cleanup projects that are underway stand to be significantly harmed by proposed cuts. In addition, there are many cleanup projects yet to be started, she said.

She also questioned whether worker safety could be compromised.

Perry said he had heard nothing to indicate that safety would in anyway be compromised.

The budget cuts reflect progress made at Hanford, he said.

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The first load of radioactive sludge arrived at Hanford’s T Plant in the center of the nuclear reservation in June 2018. The tractor trailer holding the container is shown before backing into a tunnel at the plant to allow the container to be placed in an underground cell at the plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

Radioactive sludge is expected to be moved from underwater storage in the K West Reactor Basin near the Columbia River to dry storage in the center of the site by the end of the year.

Perry also started to talk about progress on the Plutonium Finishing Plant, where a legal deadline under the Hanford Tri-Party Agreement to have it torn down to the ground already has been extended and then missed.

Murray cut him off, saying she was aware of project status.

“Take a look at this and come back to us (with) exactly how those cuts are going to impact the Tri-Party Agreement and these projects,” she said.

State will weigh in with opinion

The Washington state Department of Ecology plans to write its annual letter to federal officials with its position on the proposed Hanford budget.

In the meantime, Alex Smith, manager of the Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program, said the agency was disappointed in the calls for a budget reduction.

“We believe that the lack of adequate funding translates into a longer, more drawn-out cleanup, and that in turn is a significant factor in the increased cost of total cleanup,” Smith said.

Proposed cuts to the Hanford budget by the White House have been a pattern in recent years, with Congress then restoring funding.

“We’re hopeful that Congress will again restore funding, but we want to emphasize that at current funding levels Energy is likely to continue to miss cleanup deadlines and the total cleanup cost will continue to escalate,” Smith said.

Perry wants to speed up process

For the second day in a row Wednesday, Perry was questioned about the skyrocketing estimates of Hanford cleanup costs.

At a House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., asked Perry how the administration could reconcile a proposal to cut the Hanford budget from about $2.5 billion this year to about $2.1 billion in fiscal 2020 given new estimates for the remaining cost of cleanup.

Sen. Patty Murray tours Hanford’s B Reactor, part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Tri-City Herald File

Estimates released in January said the cost for work still to be completed would be $323 billion to $677 billion. That’s up from the previous estimate in 2016 of about $107 billion.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., brought up the new estimates again at the Wednesday Senate hearing he presided over, repeating the estimates three times during a brief exchange on the subject with Perry.

“The status quo is not sustainable,” Perry said.

DOE is working aggressively to get work done sooner, safer and at a reasonable price, he said.

Alexander questioned whether an independent look at Hanford plans would help the people of Washington state know that someday environmental cleanup would be completed and help the taxpayers know that it would be done at a reasonable cost.

It could help gain control of a project that is way over budget, he said.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.