RICHLAND — The Biden administration has revised its budget request for the Hanford nuclear reservation to boost funding in an unprecedented step by the White House for the site.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., had repeatedly urged in public and private conversations with the administration that the federal government fully fund environmental cleanup of the 580-square-mile site in Eastern Washington.
It was used from World War II through the Cold War to produce nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, leaving behind millions of gallons of radioactive waste and contaminated buildings, soil, debris and groundwater.
The Biden administration this week amended its request to Congress for Hanford funding in fiscal 2023 to boost its proposed budget by about $191 million to just over $2.6 billion.
When the administration released its budget request for Hanford for the next fiscal year in late March it had proposed a cut from current spending of $172 million.
The new budget proposal is higher than current spending levels by about $18 million.
“I can’t recall a time when the president’s request for Hanford was actually more than the current funding level,” said David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs at the Tri-City Development Council.
“Sen. Murray has been an incredible champion for Hanford cleanup, and I highly doubt this budget amendment would have happened without her,” he told the Tri-City Herald.
Murray pressed officials
Murray had pointedly questioned Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at a hearing in May about the Biden administration’s proposal to cut spending at the nuclear reservation and also has been discussing the administration’s budget request with Shalanda Young, director of the White House-based Office of Management and Budget.
“Sen. Murray has been a key partner in making the case for additional funding for clean up efforts at the Hanford nuclear reservation,” Young said in a statement Wednesday. “I appreciate Sen. Murray’s leadership on this important issue and look forward to working with Congress to secure the funding Hanford needs.”
Murray said Wednesday that the revised budget request was a step in the right direction and that she was glad that Granholm and Young had heard her concerns about funding for the Hanford site “loud and clear.”
“But we still have a long way to go,” she said.
Murray had to work within Congress last year to boost current Hanford spending after the Biden administration had proposed a cut of $104 million.
With the help of the rest of the Washington congressional delegation, she succeeded in not only restoring the cut but securing a record-high budget for Hanford for fiscal 2022. It was an increase of $128 million above the Biden administration’s request.
“We need to build off the funding I secured in the last government spending package,” and the amended Hanford budget proposal submitted this week from the White House will be critical to accomplish that, Murray said.
While the Biden administration has twice proposed reduced budgets for Hanford, the reductions have been far less than those proposed by the Trump administration, which wanted a cut of $758 million for fiscal 2021.
“I have said it before — a lot of presidents will try to trim the budget when it comes to Hanford,” Murray said. “My job is to make them remember their moral and legal obligation to his community, and that’s exactly what I’ll keep doing in the other Washington.”
The amended budget request released by the Office of Management and Budget this week is a “positive sign” but there is more work that needs to be done on the fiscal 2023 budget, Reeploeg said, agreeing with Murray’s assessment.
Washington calls for more
The Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator, said earlier that $3.3 billion was needed this fiscal year and nearly $3.4 billion would be needed in fiscal 2023 to meet legal deadlines for Hanford cleanup under the Tri-Party Agreement and a federal court consent decree.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, also emphasized the need for significantly increased budgets when he visited the Tri-Cities last Thursday and toured the nuclear reservation. Just days before he visited he sent a letter to Young, warning of the impacts of potential Hanford budget cuts.
The trend of increased budgets will need to continue in the years to come to support work on the Hanford vitrification plant’s High Level Waste Facility in addition to other Hanford cleanup projects, Reeploeg said.
Construction on the High Level Waste Facility has been halted for a decade after technical issues were raised about the safe and effective operation of the facility.
Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left in underground tanks, some of them leaking.
The vitrification plant, where construction began in 2002, is planned to start treating some of the least radioactive tank waste for permanent disposal at the end of fiscal 2023. But it also must be treating high-level waste a decade later under the consent decree.
Hanford, Tri-Cities needs
Murray pressed the energy secretary at a June 2021 hearing to restore Payment in Lieu of Taxes for local governments in the Tri-Cities area, when the White House had proposed zeroing out that part of the federal government.
Benton, Franklin and Grant counties bill the Department of Energy for property taxes that would be paid on Hanford land, if it were not in government hands.
PILT payments are used for Richland and other schools, rural libraries, the Prosser Hospital District, the Port of Benton and county roads, capital projects, human services and indigent veterans.
This year Murray pointed out in a May hearing with Granholm that the Biden administration’s budget, as then requested, would delay cleanup of high-level radiaoctive waste spilled into the ground beneath the 324 Building, which is close to Richland and near the Columbia River.
Murray also pointed out that costs at the vit plant’s High Level Waste Facility are expected to double between fiscal 2023 and 2024 and continue to grow through the rest of the decade.
“I’m really disappointed by this year’s request,” Murray said then. “We’ve got to do better than this.”
Granholm acknowledged that Hanford, which adjoins the Tri-Cities, is the nation’s largest environmental cleanup site.
But there are other sites across the nation that also need environmental cleanup and the budget request has to balance needs at all sites, she said.
No information has been released on what projects at Hanford the proposed budget request could fund.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., also have been strong advocates for Hanford funding and have discussed the need for adequate cleanup budgets with Granholm at congressional hearings.
Inslee on Wednesday called the revised budget request “a significant victory for Washington state.”
“By taking this action, the president has signaled an end to the cycle of presidential administrations cutting Hanford funding and placing the burden on Congress and Washington state,” the governor said.