Frustration with the tank waste treatment project

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If there is one source of consistent frustration — inside and outside of DOE — with Hanford cleanup, it is the tank waste treatment and disposal program. The frustrations run the gamut — the program is too fast, too slow, too expensive, overstaffed, understaffed, poorly managed, micro-managed, too open, too secretive, overfunded, underfunded — you name it, somebody thinks it. When Hanford talks tanks, paradoxes and disagreements abound.

What seems to be agreed upon, however, is the notion that the tank waste treatment program has not made adequate progress. Hanford isn’t much closer to removing and treating Hanford’s tank wastes today than it was ten years ago.

The tank waste program is tasked with removing, vitrifying in glass, and disposing of 54 million gallons of high level radioactive waste currently stored in Hanford’s 177 aging waste tanks.

The program is unarguably one of the top environmental priorities at Hanford, in the DOE weapons complex, and, indeed, in the nation. However, of the five DOE sites with similar tank wastes, Hanford stands alone as the only site with no real retrieval, treatment or disposal capability. Worse, Hanford has far and away the majority of the nation’s tank waste stored in the nation’s most dilapidated tank system. After ten years of cleanup, the Hanford site stands alone in its lack of progress on retrieving, treating and disposing tank waste.

Despite the consensus behind the importance of this program, its history is littered with false starts, dramatic changes of direction, and a lack of willingness or ability on the part of DOE to carry the program to success. In short, measurable progress in the tank waste treatment and disposal mission is all but nonexistent.

The difficulties in the tank waste disposal program do not only prolong the effort. They also hurt Hanford’s reputation in the eyes of the rest of the DOE complex, Congress, and the general public. As a result, tank program failures overshadow Hanford’s less high profile but important cleanup successes.

With the cleanup just a few months shy of ten years old, it’s useful to look at the tank waste treatment and disposal program with an eye toward the program’s common denominators — its undeniable characteristics that have prevented substantial progress. It is there that maybe we can understand why the program is not further along.

To begin, let’s look at a brief summary of the history of treatment and disposal efforts.

Brief history of tank waste treatment efforts

In 1957, Hanford embarked on a program to treat and dispose of tank waste. The approved program outlined an effort that would treat the waste as it was produced for $25 million. The program would avoid the building of new tanks and would greatly reduce the wastes being dumped into the ground.

Unfortunately, the money to support this program was diverted to build the N Reactor. As a result, new tanks had to be built and Hanford continued operations with no treatment capability.

In 1989, almost exactly ten years ago, the Tri Party Agreement was signed to much fanfare. DOE was for the first time to be externally regulated by the EPA and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The TPA required DOE to remove the waste from the tanks and separate the low and high activity portions through a high-tech pretreatment process. The low activity portion would be mixed with cement and dumped into huge grout vaults at Hanford. The high activity portion would be vitrified into glass for shipment off site.

After multiple lengthy delays to the program schedule, as well as technical problems, the option for treatment of the waste via grout was canceled in 1993 in favor of a very popular proposal — vitrification of all the tank waste in two vitrification plants.

In 1994, DOE signed on to the new plan as outlined in the TPA. Low activity waste vitrification would start in 2004 and high activity waste vitrification would start in 2009.

In 1995, less than one year later, DOE had again changed its mind, claiming that the 1994 plan was too expensive. DOE’s new buzzword idea — “privatization” — appeared amid sparkling lights and grandiose promises.

Privatization seemed to have everything — except a definition and any connection with sound, common-sense thinking. The privatization concept held that DOE would save money by issuing fixed-price contracts to private contractors to conduct the tank waste cleanup. The contractor would finance the building and operating of the vitrification facilities and DOE would only pay for treated waste. Based on privatization, a new set of TPA milestones was written, requiring the start of two low activity vitrification plants by 2002.

By 1997, DOE’s privatization concept had experienced severe difficulties at other sites around the nation. At Hanford, DOE’s poorly conceived original privatization concept was forced to evolve. It has resulted in DOE’s current contract with BNFL to design a vitrification plant.

The BNFL contract fails to meet the dates laid out in the 1995 version of the TPA. The contract with BNFL currently estimates starting high level vitrification in 2006-2007, and starting low activity vitrification in 2007 or 2008.

As one can see, the history of the program shows a pattern of delays and dramatic changes in program direction. Sometimes these delays are the result of genuine technical issues that are positive and necessary changes to the program. And other times changes are motivated by politics.

Either way, when we look at the program’s history, several fundamental barriers to real progress emerge. Here are four. I call them the laws of the tank program.

1. The start of tank waste treatment and related TPA milestones will always be delayed.

The philosophy behind this law is that, if DOE doesn’t ever start the job, DOE will never finish the job. The history of the program shows that the actual start of construction — pouring concrete, building the building — of a vitrification facility is always delayed. As a result, the start of treatment is always delayed.

While there have been instances where DOE has agreed to speed up the start of treatment, they were always followed shortly by a renegotiation allowing for a long delay. Looking at the original TPA, the program would already have filled several grout vaults and the vitrification plant would be starting this year. Instead, Hanford is still over five years away from starting a vitrification plant.

2. Delays increase costs and risks.

Many of the delays and changes in program direction are ostensibly made because DOE says they will reduce the cost of vitrifying tank wastes. Many arguments can be made over whether the changes will actually result in cost savings (the current debates about whether privatization will be cheaper are a good example). But all these arguments are wasteful and divert attention away from the real cost driver. It is all but impossible to accurately estimate the cost of a program that is so large and complex. As a result, arguments over cost often divert attention away from the real cost driver — delays.

What we can say for sure is this: Delays cost money. The longer DOE delays, the more costly the treatment program gets. Further, the longer DOE delays, the longer we’re paying for surveillance and maintenance in the tank farms, the more tank leaks threaten the Columbia River and risks to workers in the tank farms are prolonged.

Hanford is ten years into what was originally a 30-40 year program projected to cost between $13 and $40 billion. Ten years and billions of dollars have not reduced either the estimates for program cost nor the time it will take to complete the program.

In short, Hanford is no better off today than it was ten years ago. As the Hanford community argues over the cheapest way to complete the job, costs continue to rise.

3. There is never enough money to build a vitrification facility in the next five years. There are unlimited amounts of money beyond five years.

Many of the delays in starting treatment seem to point to a lack of willingness on the part of the federal government to spend the money to build the treatment facility. Building a vitrification facility requires lots of money in a very short period of time. In other words, for the two to four years of actual construction, the tank waste treatment facility will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. This is money the federal government doesn’t appear to want to spend on Hanford tank waste treatment.

The inability or lack of willingness to spend this money leads to program delays. Worse, it leads to the program assumption that, while there is no money to build the facility now, there will be plenty of money if we just wait five years. Of course, the high level DOE officials who outline plans such as this are gone in five years, having effectively passed the responsibility on to their successors.

The assumption that Hanford will have buckets of money five years from now is fatally flawed. The program’s history has shown that such money does not materialize. Even worse, history suggests that the reasonable assumption is that there will be less money in five years.

4. Management has been unable to carry the tank program to success.

Management problems within the program are well known. Internal and external review groups have pointed out time and again that management difficulties within the program present barriers to success.

Systemic problems are usually to blame for the tank waste program’s management difficulties. The management systems are not in place that allow for clear lines of decision-making authority. As a result, accountability within the program is virtually nonexistent, and progress suffers.

Cleanup at Hanford is not without progress. However, the tank waste program at Hanford has been marked by an inability to make real progress toward treatment and disposal of the tank waste. For HEAL, progress in the tank waste treatment program is defined as a vitrification plant that is safely treating tank wastes.

DOE must focus on overcoming the above outlined characteristics of the program that have set up barriers to real progress. And what that all boils down to is DOE’s commitment to the Northwest.

DOE must commit to treating and disposing of Hanford’s tank wastes. The shell game of delays and politically motivated program changes must stop.

DOE must commit to instituting management systems that provide program incentives for progress, and put in place clear decision-making and accountability mechanisms.

DOE must commit to aggressively and creatively financing the program. There will be no more money five years from now than there is now — and there will likely be less. If the federal government is going to treat Hanford tank waste, there is no cheaper way to do it than to do it now. All the bright ideas in the world will not reduce the cost of the program if they take years or decades to implement.

Lastly, the citizens of the Northwest must commit to ensuring that DOE fulfills its responsibility and keeps the tank waste treatment program on track.

The time when another false start or failure is an acceptable program outcome is past. DOE’s current approach to tank waste treatment is a last chance effort. Failure is unacceptable. It would likely leave the Northwest with 177 waste tanks rotting in the desert and leaking wastes toward the Columbia River.

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Todd Martin is a consultant and former staff researcher for HEAL. He is widely regarded as an expert on the Hanford tank waste cleanup project.