Apr 09 2013

Cantwell Secures Commitment from Energy Secretary Nominee to Visit Hanford, Stick to Clean-Up Milestones

In confirmation hearing, Moniz also promises Cantwell he will reconsider whether disposal of defense nuclear waste should be addressed separately from commercial waste

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) secured a commitment from Dr. Ernest Moniz that if confirmed as the next U.S. Secretary of Energy, he would visit Hanford, and would strive to adhere to the Tri-Party Agreement, the legally binding plan which has dictated federal and state clean-up roles and milestones at the Hanford Site for more than two decades.

During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee nomination hearing for Dr. Moniz, Cantwell urged the nominee to base Hanford cleanup decisions on “good science and good timeframes.” In response to a lengthy series of Hanford questions by both Cantwell and Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), Dr. Moniz promised he would focus on Hanford cleanup challenges and visit the site in order to view the complex issues firsthand.

Dr. Moniz also made the following commitments to Cantwell:

New Consideration of Separating Defense Nuclear Waste: Cantwell asked Dr. Moniz if military nuclear waste should be addressed separately from commercial waste in any disposal plan, to which he said he would “push for that evaluation” and “relook” at the issue if confirmed. Dr. Moniz noted that the issue was discussed extensively when he served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, but that the final report failed to address defense-related waste.

Ensuring Adequate Funding for Hanford Cleanup: Dr. Moniz committed to working with Cantwell and other involved members of Congress to secure the resources needed to meet Hanford clean-up milestones, despite likely federal budget cuts, and to use those resources most effectively.

Supporting Manhattan Project National Historical Park and Hanford Land Transfer: Dr. Moniz committed to work with Cantwell to move forward on the creation of a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park that includes the B Reactor and other key sites at Hanford, as well as the transfer of surplus land at the Hanford site to the community for economic development.

Working with PNNL on Energy Priorities: Dr. Moniz committed to increase engagement with the directors of national laboratories, including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, regarding the strategic decisions being made at DOE. “I’m going to be looking to work in a somewhat different way with the laboratory directors, so that they are engaged more in strategic decisions about where we all go together,” Moniz said.

Maintaining Cost-Based Power at BPA: Under questioning by Cantwell, Moniz assured Cantwell he understood the importance of the Bonneville Power Administration and was committed to delivering low-cost power to its customers.

“You and I have had a chance to have many conversations about a variety of issues but obviously first and foremost on my list is Hanford and Hanford cleanup,” Cantwell said to Dr. Moniz during today’s hearing. “First of all, I hope that you’ll make it a priority to visit Hanford very soon in your tenure as Secretary of Energy.”

Dr. Moniz responded: “I certainly will. … My plan would be to get hard briefings immediately, go to the site because I think you need to be there to understand the issues, come back, work with the Chairman, work with you, [Senator] Murray and make sure we get a plan together going forward and do that expeditiously.”

“We always have to remind ourselves that this has to be based on good science and good timeframes,” Cantwell said. “Do you believe in cutting the budget, including Hanford cleanup, if it’s going to miss the milestones?”

“Clearly I support trying to meet the milestones and that will require having the budget to do it,” Dr. Moniz responded. “Again I don’t know what the budget is. I don’t know the path forward. I can assure you that I will work with you and the other involved members to try to do the best we can to A) get the resources and B) to use what resources we have most effectively.”

“I think I mentioned to you in my office I’m literally for Energy Secretary for life or until Hanford is cleaned up,” Cantwell responded. “Because every time a new Administration or a new Energy Secretary comes in somebody comes up with a brilliant, ‘oh this is the best way to do it, this is how we’re going to do it.’”

Cantwell continued: “I wanted to get your thoughts on the issue of the commission you served on and separating out military waste. Because one of the issues that has thwarted us in looking at the larger nuclear waste repository issue is that Hanford has, will have with the vit plant producing vitrified logs, a need for storage of this military waste. Should we move forward on looking at that as a solution? Of separating the military, the defense waste from other ways?”

Dr. Moniz responded: “Well Senator Cantwell that was a very spirited discussion in the Blue Ribbon Commission. The origin of it is that clearly the conditions that led to the decision in the 1980s to commingle are no longer operative. So therefore a relook is certainly in order. The Blue Ribbon Commission recommended that. And if I’m confirmed I really want to push that evaluation.”

Click here to watch a video of Cantwell’s entire exchange with Dr. Moniz today.

Cantwell has expressed concern over the future of Hanford’s nuclear waste many times in the past. In September 2012, during an ENR Committee hearing, Cantwell said she would need to see an explicit disposal plan for Hanford’s defense-related nuclear waste before supporting any new legislation designed to address the nation’s nuclear waste problem. Cantwell made the case that the nation’s nuclear waste policy should address the disposal of defense nuclear waste and commercial nuclear waste separately. Doing so would help expedite the removal of high-level defense waste, about 90 percent of which is at Hanford. Click here to watch an archived web video of the September 2012 hearing. Cantwell’s comments start at 1:02:56 and again at 1:22:51.

Debate over how and where to store commercial waste has hurt efforts to find cheaper and faster ways to dispose of defense nuclear waste. In particular, the amended Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a retrievability requirement of up to 100 years. Defense waste is comprised of nuclear byproducts that can never be reprocessed for electricity generation, unlike commercial waste. The permanent disposal of defense waste would open up new repository possibilities such as salt formations that are likely to be considerably less expensive and located in communities that welcome the opportunity.

According to a recent report by Dr. James Conca and Dr. Judith Wright, the cost in 2007 dollars of disposing 83,000 tons of heavy metal, high-level waste is about $29 billion in massive salt formations, $77 billion in crystalline rock and $83 billion in volcanic tuff. Despite the potential cost advantages of salt formations, the nation’s nuclear waste policy effectively excludes them because any deposits are permanent and cannot meet the retrievability requirement.

In February 2012, Cantwell pressed DOE Secretary Steven Chu on whether the disposal of military waste could be prioritized over commercial waste. She also asked him about the possibility of disposing Hanford waste at a Waste Isolation Plant Project (WIPP) facility in New Mexico. Secretary Chu responded that he thought it would be “prudent” to treat civilian and military waste differently, and that further studies would need to be done to determine if WIPP could be a safe repository for high-level waste.

Also in February 2012, during an ENR hearing, Cantwell questioned the co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future about their final report’s failure to deal with defense-related waste. Click here to watch a video of Cantwell’s exchange with the Blue Ribbon Commission co-chairs.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s final report, released in late January 2012, addresses how best to manage the nation’s nuclear waste. However, the report only focused on commercial nuclear waste from power plants and did not address what to do with defense-related waste specifically. Commission co-chairs, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and General Brent Scowcroft, and Commission member and former Senator Pete Domenici all testified at the February 2012 hearing. Both chairmen agreed that Hanford waste was a priority and had urged the Administration to launch an immediate review of how to address defense waste.

Cantwell is also working to drive economic development opportunities in the Tri-City region post Hanford clean-up. She has long advocated for the historic preservation of Hanford’s B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor, which would help increase tourism in the region. Cantwell is a lead sponsor along with Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act (S. 507), which would preserve historic sites at Hanford including the B Reactor, as well as Manhattan Project-related sites at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Currently designated a National Historic Landmark, elevating the B Reactor’s status to a National Historical Park would ensure it will not be torn down and increase public access to the historic reactor, helping to attract more visitors to the Tri-Cities. A National Historical Park designation would give Hanford sites the same status as Independence Hall, Valley Forge and Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.

Last July Cantwell visited Hanford’s B Reactor Visitor Center with local business owners, visitor bureau representatives and B Reactor preservation advocates and highlighted how a Manhattan Project National Historical Park that includes the B Reactor would create jobs and support local business. Prior to her July visit, Cantwell’s questioning during a National Parks Subcommittee hearing led a U.S. Department of Interior representative to agree that elevating B Reactor to National Historical Park status would increase Tri-Cities tourism.

Last year, B Reactor tourism brought $1.5 million to the Tri-Cities economy, according to the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau. Since the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the B Reactor as a National Historical Landmark in August 2008, opening it to the public for the first time, more than 20,000 visitors have toured B Reactor from all 50 states and 48 countries.

Cantwell has pushed for other economic development opportunities in the Tri-City region. During an ENR Committee hearing in February 2012, Cantwell asked DOE Secretary Chu for an update on the Tri-Cities Development Council’s application for the transfer of around 1,600 acres of surplus land from the Hanford Site to the surrounding community for private sector job growth. In May 2011, Cantwell and Murray sent a letter to Secretary Chu urging DOE to transfer the uncontaminated land to the Tri-Cities. The Senators stated that a land transfer would encourage business investment and economic growth in the region and signify a “shared commitment to helping the region transition to a thriving, post-cleanup economy.”

A complete transcript of Cantwell’s remarks at today’s hearing follows:

Senator Cantwell: Dr. Moniz thank you very much. You and I have had a chance to have many conversations about a variety of issues but obviously first and foremost on my list is Hanford and Hanford cleanup. First of all, I hope that you’ll make it a priority to visit Hanford very soon in your tenure as Secretary of Energy?

Moniz: If I’m confirmed.

Senator Cantwell: If confirmed.

Moniz: I certainly will. If I may say so Senator Cantwell, particularly seeing the recent D-N-S-F-B letter laying out the issues. My plan would be to get hard briefings immediately, go to the site because I think you need to be there to understand the issues, come back, work with the Chairman, work with you, [Senator] Murray and make sure we get a plan together going forward. And do that expeditiously.

Cantwell: Great, that was my first and foremost. Secondly, we always have to remind ourselves that this has to be based on good science and good timeframes. So you believe in living up to the Tri-Party Agreement?

Moniz: The Tri-Party Agreement is an agreement we have to strive to satisfy. I will also be straight forward in opening a discussion if I think that there are challenges that are rooted in the science and technology. Certainly my intent is to work with you and the other members to adhere to the…

Cantwell: But you believe in the document as an agreement by the federal government to live up to those milestones?

Moniz: It is an agreement with milestones.

Cantwell: Ok, great. And what about this issue of the sequestration and how it impacts Hanford cleanup? Do you think this is an important enough issue that we shouldn’t be looking at ways to cut funding if that means not living to the Tri-Party Agreement? I’m not trying to get you to make a forward-looking statement as it relates to the Administration and the budget as much as I’m trying to emphasize, do you believe in cutting the budget, including Hanford cleanup, if it’s going to miss the milestones?

Moniz: Clearly I support trying to meet the milestones and that will require having the budget to do it. Again I don’t know what the budget is. I don’t know the path forward. I can assure you that I will work with you and the other involved members to try to do the best we can to A) get the resources and B) to use what resources we have most effectively.

Cantwell: I think I mentioned to you in my office I’m literally for energy secretaries for life or until Hanford is cleaned up. Because every time a new Administration or a new Energy Secretary comes in, somebody comes up with a brilliant, ‘oh this is the best way to do it, this is how we’re going to do it.’ And they come up with a new idea and it usually ends up costing millions or billions of dollars. And then they thwart it or we throw it out or basically say ‘no you can’t clean up 97 percent of the tank waste, you have to clean up 100 percent of the tank waste.’ I wanted to get your thoughts on the issue of the commission you served on and separating out military waste. Because one of the issues that has thwarted us in looking at the larger nuclear waste repository issue is that Hanford has, will have, with the vit plant producing vitrified logs, a need for storage of this military waste. Should we move forward on looking at that as a solution? Of separating the military, the defense waste from other ways?

Moniz: Well Senator Cantwell that was a very spirited discussion in the Blue Ribbon Commission. The origin of it is that clearly the conditions that led to the decision in the 1980s to commingle are no longer operative. So therefore a relook is certainly in order. The Blue Ribbon Commission recommended that. And if I’m confirmed I really want to push that evaluation.

Cantwell: Ok, and you mentioned in your testimony about smart grid obviously we want our national laboratories to move forward on that. Obviously we’d love you to visit PNNL while you are out in the Northwest but making a commitment to our national laboratories and the development of smart grid technology. I’m hoping that you are going to move forward on where Secretary Chu has been on developing a more concentrated strategy for our national labs?

Moniz: I believe that we…

Cantwell: I just want to make clear not concentrated as in only one lab as much as making a focus for our national labs, thank you.

Moniz: Thank you for the clarification. I feel that the department and the labs work best when working together in a strategic way on the major mission priorities. The grid is one of those. And so, frankly I’m going to be looking to work in a somewhat different way with the laboratory directors so that frankly they are engaged more in the strategic decisions about where we all go together.

Cantwell: Thank you.

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Cantwell: I wanted to bring up an issue about cost-based power and the Bonneville Power Administration. Obviously one of the issues that we care deeply about is to make sure that we continue that. And that the Northwest delegation, you know, BPA rate-payers, there is always an attempt every few years to try and refocus that. And I wanted to get your commitment on continuing to make sure that BPA has strong jurisdiction within the Department of Energy relative to other ideas that people have about living up to the structure of the BPA and how it exists today.

Moniz: Well Senator Cantwell, first I understand completely the importance of the PMAs [Power Marketing Administrations], in large regions of the country. Bonneville is definitely a major player. We are committed to maintaining sound management. The commitment to delivering low-cost power to the customers and working with BPA and interested members in a collaborative way also to make sure they are developing in a way that’s important technically and important for the Northwest.

Cantwell: I also wanted to get your comments on the Manhattan Project National Historical Park which is preserving the B Reactor at the Hanford site. And the Department of Energy’s commitment to moving forward on that with Interior and also on land exchanges. Part of the land we’ve been successful at moving forward on at Hanford has given us the ability to say that once this cleanup is there and completed that there is a possibility to move forward with moving that land into other functions once the cleanup is completed. So I wanted to see if you know of any other reason why that would be held up in the future? Either of those projects?

Moniz: No I don’t. I know of the projects and I know of the desire for beneficial use of additional land there for economic development, etc. But I don’t know of them in-depth, I will certainly work with you on that and I certainly see no reason why that wouldn’t go forward. Again I will be happy to work with you and your office on that.

Cantwell: Ok, and just lastly I know my colleague at the beginning of his statement had a chance to talk to you about renewable energy as part of the mix and portfolio. Do you see an opportunity looking back at some of the resources that we have been talking about as a way to better streamline? When you look at the marketplace and how things are being financed for clean energy solutions, do you see a better way for us to continue progress on clean energy solutions and the development of new technology?

Moniz: Well I’m certainly aware and very interested in a number of discussions about different approaches. Such as extension of Master Limited Partnerships (MLP) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT) to clean energy. And if those prove to be, and I know that here members are also interested in those approaches. Those or others that can help move a lot of private capital into the game would be very interesting and I would love to work on those with the members.

Cantwell: Well I was thinking a little more in the sense of the Small Business Administration has been a very big catalyst for luring private sector dollars by coming up with a very cost-effective cheap capital to help secure private-sector investment. And my question, we’ve had a lot of conversation on this committee on loan guarantees and the complexity of what it takes the Department of Energy to sign off on a project. But when you think of something in a more turn-key style. Where a little bit of federal dollars could be leveraged 20 to 30 times by the private sector. In more of a model that would be simple in the context of, the great thing about renewable energy and electricity is that you actually have revenue source because of the power that’s being generated. So I just wondered if you have thoughts about that?

Moniz: Well I think I’m going to need to listen on that and get more good ideas. But again the general idea of finding mechanisms, especially to leverage private resources I think would be very effective.

Cantwell: Thank you so much.

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Cantwell: Well thank you Mr. Chairman. I certainly welcome that your leadership has, I don’t think I’ve been at a hearing where Hanford and Hanford cleanup has been mentioned so many times by the Chairman of the committee. So I certainly welcome the focus and welcome your visit to the Pacific Northwest and your visit at Hanford. I guess as I have looked at this over 12 years the complexity from the science side of this is always interested me. And as I said in my statement earlier that I think oftentimes people come in as a new secretary or maybe individuals underneath the secretary and propose new ideas and I could provide the committee with a long list of those and some of them have not gone so well. But I guess from the perspective of, you know there are some people who have talked about reprogramming dollars, which is always a concern. Reprogramming dollars away from Hanford or not being able to understand or crack the science. I guess what I’m asking you Dr. Moniz whether you think this is an issue of, we don’t know the answers on a scientific basis? Or yes, these are problems but any project of this magnitude and size is going to have problems from a scientific perspective that we have to solve. And so I guess my questions is do we know what the issues are? Are they solvable scientific problems? And are you committed to making sure the Department of Energy puts forward a budget that will help us solve these in a timely fashion so we aren’t waiting two years to find out an answer about tank waste?

Moniz: Senator Cantwell on the first question about the scientific situation. I mean that’s what I really have to, to make my own mind up I have to go look at it carefully. My guess is that I will come to the conclusion that the key uncertainties are identified but there may be still some specifics in there we will have to do a little more work. That’s only a guess but for example, I know going back years how different the understanding of the waste composition is in different tanks, to make sure we understand how we can get those tanks, how we can those wastes characterized adequately and maybe mixed in the right way to be able to please the pre-treatment and or WTP. So I think that’s the level at which I intend to look at this. I can’t answer your question today but I can assure you for one thing, I’m not out to invent a new theory of these wastes. I’d like to be as pragmatic as we can to move the project forward. Obviously it’s been a challenge.

Cantwell: But I guess what I’m asking is to me, I’m trying to separate out the two different issues. One is whether we know enough about the science or are these impossible scientific questions? I think that it is a little more known quantity. I mean first of all I think this is one of the largest nuclear cleanups in the entire world. Not just the United States. So the complexity of that process, in my mind is a separate issue from the complexity of the science. And trying to distinguish what our big bumps in the road that need to be overcome from a process perspective, being different from the scientific questions. So I don’t know, it’s obviously hard before you dig in to give us a concrete answer on the science. But do you see anything at your first look at this that these are science questions that can’t be answered?

Moniz: I certainly at this stage know of no question that cannot be answered. I’m just reserving judgment until I, well actually I’d be very surprised if there were questions that could not be answered. I was really thinking more about has been answered, that’s really the issue.

Cantwell: Ok, and so you think these are challenges that can be met from a scientific perspective? And obviously we need to focus on the process here and make sure the process goes smoothly. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that given the magnitude and scale of this project. I’ve always questioned the challenge of how hard it is given the size and scale of the vit plant but that yes we have to have accurate assessments and plans in place but every step in the process obviously we find more and more information that we have to tackle.

Moniz: And what I would call part of the process certainly. And I just don’t know the level to which the systems engineering integration has been done to make sure all the pieces are coming together in a way that makes it as resource efficient as it can be. Because I think the resource efficiency is going to be important for us to try and move this in the most timely way.

Cantwell: Thank you. Thank you Mr. Chairman.

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