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Oct. 6, 2022

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Cost to clean up Hanford radioactive waste is skyrocketing

Government Accountability Office's report to Congress outlines how to save billions of dollars

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The Department of Energy has options to rein in the skyrocketing costs of treating the Hanford site’s 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical tank waste, says the Government Accountability Office.

The governors of Washington and Oregon, along with unions and some Tri-Cities and Western Washington and Oregon watchdog groups, have asked the Biden administration for an increase of more than $1 billion annually for the Hanford environmental cleanup.

They sent a letter to Biden just ahead of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s planned first visit to the nuclear reservation by Richland in Eastern Washington on Friday.

But a recent Government Accountability Office update report to Congress on options for dealing with Hanford’s waste stored in underground tanks looks instead at how costs could be cut.

“Opportunities exist for Congress and DOE to take steps now that could potentially save tens of billions of dollars while reducing certain risks posed by the waste,” the Government Accountability Office said. Budgets would still likely need to increase.

The waste is left from chemically processing irradiated uranium fuel from World War II through the Cold War to remove plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

No waste treated yet

The report points out that when design and construction of the Hanford vitrification plant, which is planned to treat much of the tank waste, started in 2000, the estimated cost to complete construction was $4.3 billion.

But at the start of this summer, the Department of Energy had spent $13 billion, with no waste yet treated at the plant.

Approved estimates for completing the plant are long outdated. But the Government Accountability Office said the Army Corps of Engineers estimated in 2018 that completing the vitrification plant, or Waste Treatment Plant, could cost $33 billion to $42 billion.

The vitrification plant was designed to separate the millions of gallons of waste stored in underground tanks into low-activity and high-level radioactive waste for glassification.

Underground disposal is planned in central Hanford for the least radioactive waste after vitrification and disposal in a deep geological repository off Hanford for the most radioactive waste. The nation has no repository yet for high-level radioactive waste.

The vitrification plant, as envisioned in 2000, was designed to be large enough to treat all of the high-level radioactive waste and about 60 percent of the low-activity radioactive waste.

The Department of Energy plans to expand the vitrification plant to treat the remainder of the low-activity waste, but it is also looking at alternatives to vitrifying some of the low-activity waste.

To continue the current approach to the Hanford tank waste cleanup would require budgets just for tank waste cleanup to reach almost $6 billion in fiscal 2030, according to the Department of Energy and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine estimates.

That does not include money for cleanup on the rest of the 580-square-mile Hanford site, including treating contaminated groundwater, retrieving radioactive buried waste, and tearing down contaminated and unneeded buildings.

Now, total Hanford spending is about $2.6 billion annually.

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