Energy Department Faulted for Mishandling Hanford Nuclear Waste

July 14, 2008  - Environmental News Service

The U.S. Department of Energy doesn't know enough about the condition and contents of millions of gallons of radioactive and hazardous wastes stored in tanks at its Hanford Site in Washington state to make good decisions about cleanup and costs, according to a new report by Congress's investigative agency.  Washington, DC - The findings issued by the U.S. General Accountability Office are the latest in a string of critiques finding fault with the way the Department of Energy is handling Hanford, which GAO natural resources and development director Gene Aloise called "one of the most contaminated places on Earth."

Situated on 586 square miles along the Columbia River in southeastern Washington, upstream from the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, the Hanford Site was established in 1943 to produce plutonium for atomic bombs, as part of the government's top-secret Manhattan Project.

Hanford manufactured nuclear materials through 1989, a mission that left in its wake the world's largest environmental cleanup project.

Now, the Department of Energy is responsible for managing more than 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste stored in 149 single-shell and 28 double-shell underground tanks.

Of those, 67 are confirmed or presumed to have already leaked about one million gallons of waste into the ground. In 2000, the estimated cost of tank waste cleanup was estimated at nearly $50 billion.

One of the agency's plans is to convert some of the most perilous radioactive waste into glass, a process called vitrification. But the process of conversion is stymied by the fact that some of the radioactive elements have formed "unknown compounds" while in storage.

The Energy Deparment has an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state of Washington's Department of Ecology to remove waste from single-shelled tanks by the fall of 2018 and "immobilize" all tank waste by the end of 2028.

But the department is far behind schedule. By its latest estimate, according to the GAO report, waste treatment will not begin until late 2019 and it could continue to 2050 and beyond.

In its report issued June 30, the GAO recommended that the Department of Energy give priority to assessing the integrity of single-shelled tanks; quantify specific risks of continuing to use the tanks; and work with state and federal agencies on a realistic cleanup schedule.

In response, DOE said the recommendations were consistent with what it is already doing or plans to do, but disagreed that it lacks the knowledge to make informed decisions about the integrity of the tanks and retrieving and treating the waste.

Previous investigations by the GAO concluded that flaws in the Department of Energy's management of Hanford have led to higher costs, construction delays and safety concerns.

The Department of Energy's own inspector general found the department's oversight of the contaminated site to be disorganized and disjointed.

"Without a complete and integrated planning, budgeting, and management approach to the tank waste remediation project, the Department may be unable to control, predict, explain, or defend future changes to cost and schedule," the Office of Inspector General predicted in January 2000.