Cantwell Presses DOE for Timeline on Hanford Cleanup Projects

In hearing, Energy Secretary Moniz testifies on 2016 budget proposal

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voiced concern over proposed budget cuts to Hanford’s Richland Operations Office and called on Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to provide a timeline for cleaning up two of Hanford’s most contaminated sites. Cantwell’s remarks came during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) $30 billion budget request for FY 2016.

“Washington state is home to one of the world’s largest nuclear cleanup projects and the people of my state fully expect the Department of Energy to honor its responsibilities to finish this job,” said Cantwell, who is the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “The problem with the Hanford budget overall is that everybody always looks at it and thinks that we can do with less. We’re obviously concerned about this reduction, and again, the priorities are so mammoth, we just want to make sure we’re keeping progress.”

Cantwell also asked Moniz about progress on protecting workers from hazardous vapors at Hanford’s tank farms. Moniz said DOE would spend $20-25 million in 2015 to implement new procedures. That amount would double in 2016 as DOE adopts more than 40 recommendations in the Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment report, which was released in 2014, he said. Cantwell joined Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA-09) in a November 2014 letter calling on Moniz to take immediate action to protect Hanford workers from exposure. Moniz’s response to that letter is available here.

“I want to make sure that you continue to take control of the situation and that whatever is done under your leadership is actually institutionalized so that we don’t have the same issues happening again,” Cantwell said.

DOE’s 2016 budget requests $2.3 billion for Hanford cleanup, which is an overall increase of $100 million and an increase of $202 million for the Office of River Protection. But the plan would reduce the Richland Operations Office funding by $100 million. The office is responsible for radioactive cleanup along the site’s river corridor and central plateau. That includes Building 324 and the 618-10 burial ground, which are among the most challenging cleanup projects on the Hanford site.

The Obama administration proposed a similar cut in 2015. The final budget, however, restored $93 million to the Richland office.

Moniz said the Richland office has met several accomplishments and that the current budget proposal would continue “very strong progress.”

“I’ll have to get back to you on the specific timeline of that specific project,” Moniz said. “I want to emphasize that with this budget, we will get the Plutonium Finishing Plant -- which has been judged to be, at one point, the highest-risk project -- down to slab this year. We will be continuing to mediate ground water, and we will continue the tremendous progress that’s been made in opening up the river corridor.”

Building 324 is located a quarter-mile from the Columbia River. The building currently serves as a protective shell, keeping radiation from reaching the atmosphere, but radioactive waste has seeped into the ground below the building.  Similarly, the 618-10 burial ground is a six-acre underground depository for radioactive waste. DOE determined that cleanup must be finished in a timely fashion in order to prevent the waste from reaching the river, and set a 2018 deadline.

Cantwell also asked Moniz for a progress report on plans to preserve Hanford’s B Reactor as part of a Manhattan Project National Historic Park. In December, Congress passed Cantwell-sponsored legislation that would establish the park. As a first step, the bill called for DOE and the Department of Interior to enter into an agreement within one year on their roles in developing the park. Moniz said DOE planned to hold the first meeting with the National Park Service on Thursday.

“There is so much public demand that people view this as probably one of the most positive developments,” Cantwell said. “The science story behind this is pretty incredible."