SPOKANE — Government regulators and watchdog groups want more information about a new Department of Energy proposal to speed cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the nation's most polluted nuclear site.
The agency on Tuesday released a report, which it called a "framework," stating that starting treatment of some of Hanford's radioactive waste without sending it to the troubled vitrification plant's Pretreatment Facility could speed work.
"I remain committed to ensuring that DOE provides a full, detailed plan for comprehensively addressing the complicated challenges we still face," U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. The framework was not the comprehensive plan she wanted, Murray said.
"We have requested additional technical information to fully understand the details of the phased approach for the treatment of waste in Hanford's aging tanks," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press release.
The framework will drive talks as the Energy Department works with the state to resolve concerns about the slow pace of Hanford waste treatment, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Tuesday.
The framework "represents a prudent and reasonable approach to immobilize waste in a glass form as soon as practicable while working to resolve the technical issues," Moniz said. Work has been stopped on portions of the $12.2 billion vitrification plant, including the Pretreatment Facility, until technical issues are resolved.
Hanford, located near the Tri-Cities in southcentral Washington, is the nation's most polluted nuclear weapons production site. There are 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, at least one of which is leaking into the ground.
The federal government created Hanford during World War II to build the atomic bomb. The cleanup is expected to take decades. The effort — at a price tag of about $2 billion annually — has cost taxpayers $40 billion to date and is estimated to cost $115 billion more.
The most challenging task so far has been the removal of highly radioactive waste from the 177 aging, underground tanks and construction of a plant to treat that waste.
Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group, was critical of the framework proposal.
"The costs of building newer infrastructure to treat Hanford's tank waste will be astounding," executive director Tom Carpenter said.
The group contended that money would be better spent getting waste out of leaking tanks, building sturdier tanks, treating contaminated groundwater and excavating contaminated ground.
"DOE holds out an uncertain proposal as a quick fix," Carpenter said. "This is as opposed to a tried and true solution of simply building new tanks."
Key recommendations in the report include sending some of the waste now held in underground tanks directly to the Low Activity Waste Facility to be converted into a glasslike substance. The waste would then be disposed of at a Hanford landfill.
To allow some low-activity waste to bypass the Pretreatment Facility, a temporary plant might be built between the Hanford tank farms and the Low Activity Waste Facility to remove some of the solids and radioactive elements from some liquid waste, the report said.
In addition, up to 1.4 million gallons of waste held in 11 underground tanks might be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a national repository in New Mexico for transuranic waste. To allow that, the Energy Department must get the waste classified as transuranic rather than high level radioactive waste.
Sending the waste to New Mexico would allow tanks to be emptied significantly sooner than if DOE must wait until the vitrification plant's Pretreatment and High Level Waste Facilities are ready to accept waste, the report said.