One of the Department of Energy’s most important tasks is to clean up the legacy of nuclear materials production during World War II and the Cold War. At the Hanford site in Washington State, the Department is responsible for treating 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks. The Department, through its contractor, is designing and constructing the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant or WTP, a massive, complex, and first-of-a-kind, chemical and nuclear plant to turn a portion of this defense waste into a glass form.
WTP consists of several different facilities, including:
- The Low-Activity Waste Facility, which will turn the mostly liquid portion of the waste into a glass waste form;
- The High-Level Waste Facility, which will turn the high-level waste into a glass waste form; and
- The Pretreatment Facility, which will optimize the separation of the low and high-activity waste.
In 2010, the Department of Energy entered into a court-enforceable agreement known as a Consent Decree with the State of Washington to complete and start up WTP by 2019 and reach an average 70 percent operational capacity by 2022. The Department also agreed to transfer the waste from 19 single-shell tanks into double-shell tanks, which have an extra barrier between the waste and the environment, by 2022. Due to unresolved technical challenges, particularly with the Pretreatment Facility, the deadlines for WTP are not achievable, and the Consent Decree needs to be modified.
The Department has been in discussions with the State and had hoped to reach an agreement on an amendment to the Consent Decree. However, the State announced on Sept. 5 it would not extend discussions. DOE’s motion to modify the Consent Decree represents a prudent and reasonable approach for accomplishing the objectives outlined in the existing Consent Decree on a modified timeline in light of the technical and safety issues that have emerged.
The current design requires that all waste treated at WTP be processed through the Pretreatment Facility, but this would require waiting until the technical issues are resolved. Therefore, a key element of our proposal is an alternative approach to begin treating Hanford’s tank waste as soon as practicable by directly feeding the liquid portion of the waste to the Low-Activity Waste Facility. We continue to make progress toward achieving this goal even without an amended Consent Decree.
The Department has made tremendous progress in the cleanup efforts at Hanford, but we still have a long way to go. It is critical that we move forward as quickly as practicable to begin immobilizing the tank waste. We hope there is an expeditious resolution of this matter. In the near term, the Department will continue to move forward to begin treating tank waste at Hanford, and will continue to work with the State and key stakeholders to accomplish this important mission.
Acting EM Assistant Secretary