DOE not working with public on Hanford cleanup
The DOE seems increasingly unwilling to involve, engage or even inform regulators, stakeholders or the public. And even when information is forthcoming, it is becoming clear that the Department has no interest in paying any attention whatsoever to the comments received from their "partners."
4549 NE 39th Ave
Portland, Oregon 97211
February 2, 2004
Dear Northwest Congressional Delegation:
Over the past decade or more, we have worked diligently to build a coalition of interests in the Northwest to support the critical cleanup of nuclear contamination at the Hanford site. We have supported funding, lobbied for greater efficiencies in contracting, recommended changes in timelines and milestones, and actively participated in the public involvement process.
Over this period of time, many positive developments have taken place at Hanford. River shore cleanup efforts have moved forward expeditiously. Millions of tons of contaminated soil and other materials have been moved away from the Columbia River. C, D and DR Reactors have been cocooned, and work is underway on F and H Reactors. Much of the 2,100 tons of spent nuclear fuel in the K-Basins has been removed from the degrading storage ponds near the edge of the River. Liquid discharge to the soil has been halted, reducing the amount of contaminants pushed further down towards the groundwater. Renewed focus and attention has been directed towards construction of the vitrification plant, and construction of the plant is now well underway.
Each of these accomplishments were the result not only of actions taken by the Department of Energy, but also by an engaged and active Congressional delegation, a supportive public community willing to support changes in the cleanup program and milestones, and regulators who recognized that the Department was serious about pursuing a cleanup program that valued a collaborative approach.
Unfortunately, over the past year or more, we have detected a troubling change in this previously cooperative partnership. The DOE seems increasingly unwilling to involve, engage or even inform regulators, stakeholders or the public. And even when information is forthcoming, it is becoming clear that the Department has no interest in paying any attention whatsoever to the comments received from their "partners."
* Last January, the Department of Energy unilaterally announced that they had reached agreement with CH2MHill on a new contract that would incentivize the "closure" of 40 tanks. Suffice it to say that this was a surprise to the regulators and to the stakeholders, who viewed the Department's efforts simply as an attempt to get out from their responsibility to actually remove all of the radioactive and hazardous contents of the tanks, and instead "close" the tanks by filling them with grout or concrete.
* This past summer, the Department of Energy announced that it no longer intended to vitrify all tank waste -- as required by the Tri-Party Agreement. Instead, it planned to study multiple "supplemental technologies" which might be used to treat as much as 2/3 of the underground tank waste. Stakeholders were assured that the process for identifying and selecting the chosen technology(ies) would involve the public and regulators and would take 12 to 18 months to reach a conclusion. Yet, in December, without any advance notice, the Department violated their earlier assurances to the public, and unilaterally downselected to a single technology -- with no opportunity for public or regulatory input.
* Over the past two years, regulators, stakeholders and the local DOE have engaged in a collaborative process to identify and take advantage of risk-assessments to create a roadmap for cleanup of contaminated sites at Hanford. In spite of this cooperative effort, the recommendations of the region were flatly rejected by DOE headquarters, which has ordered the site to go back to the drawing board.
* Until 2001, the DOE had allowed regulators, stakeholders and even contractors to review current year budgets, and work to make informed recommendations for upcoming budgets for the site. Since 2001, the DOE has refused to release any substantive information about budgets. Today, more than four months into the fiscal year, stakeholders have no idea where the 2004 budget will be allocated, and thus, no way to make any reasonable recommendations for the upcoming budget submission to the Office of Management and Budget for FY 2006 or to the United States Congress for FY 2005.
* Concerns have been growing that the DOE is seeking to eliminate members and reduce the influence of the Hanford Advisory Board -- which remains the only group with long-term knowledge and understanding of the cleanup efforts. With so much turnover in the DOE and contractors, the HAB is the only group that retains a sense of historical perspective and memory on the cleanup effort.
* The region worked for several months with local DOE officials to come up with an acceptable Risk Based End State document which was submitted to headquarters this past fall. DOE-HQ reviewed and rejected the plan. Hanford was commended as best in class for the technical analysis that was included in their plan. But like all the other similar site plans, we were sent home to "creatively" come up with ways to reduce cleanup. Now, a draft will be developed by DOE officials alone, and submitted to DOE-HQ without first being reviewed by regulators or the public. Regulators have cautioned DOE that the Tri-Party Agreement is the guiding document for the Hanford cleanup and DOE cannot change that document without the concurrence of EPA and the State of Washington.
* Recent contract awards seem to be focussed almost entirely on driving down "estimated" costs and accelerating timelines -- regardless of whether or not these new estimates are credible. The General Accounting Office's rejection of the recent River Corridor contract award, and the subsequent admission of the Department that they would have to re-open the bidding process, is one clear example of this trend. In our view, this is designed to create the appearance of savings in the near term -- savings which cannot be sustained in the long term.
Time and time again, it is becoming clear that the Department has little or no interest in stakeholder involvement and input to the process. In our view, this situation is untenable in the long term. Without public understanding of the cleanup system and advocacy of funding for the Department's effort, support for billions of dollars in appropriations will eventually wane. As unattainable milestones are adopted and missed, and unrealistically low cost estimates are exceeded, Congress and the public will lose patience with the cleanup program, and the cleanup program will suffer. The result could be an environmental train wreck.
These are increasingly serious concerns, which we believe warrant immediate action by Congress and the Administration.
As a result, we are requesting the following action:
1) Congress should request that the General Accounting Office conduct a thorough review of the Department's five most recent contract agreements, focussing on whether the costs and milestones sought by the Department are actually attainable. The report should be the basis for further action by Congress. Congress should, during public hearings, ask the Secretary of Energy to personally assure that new contractual timelines and financial estimates are credible in the long run, and not simply designed to produce false claims of "savings" that will later come undone as reality sets in.
2) Congress should hold immediate hearings on the issue of regulator and stakeholder involvement in the Environmental Management program, and should require monthly updates from the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management on steps she is taking to repair the serious damage caused over the past three years by the DOE's recent actions.
3) Since as much as 2/3 of Hanford's tank waste is now under consideration for treatment outside of the vitrification plant, it is essential that all credible alternatives be thoroughly studied and pursued. Congress should require that the DOE fully fund at least two detailed scientific studies into supplemental technologies at Hanford, appropriating the additional funding as necessary.
4) Congress should re-emphasize that the Department and the federal government are fully committed to serious environmental remediation of nuclear sites, including protection of groundwater resources.
5) Congress should require consultation and collaboration with states and public as the Department reworks its Risk Based End States documents.
We have worked over the past decade to support the Department of Energy, and to support legitimate efforts to make the cleanup program more efficient, and responsive to public and regulatory needs. We were at first encouraged by appointment of officials with substantial experience in cleanup matters. But those hopes have been seriously damaged as mistake after mistake has been made over the past two years. As a result, we write to you to ask for your immediate intervention in this situation.
Paige Knight, President, Hanford Watch
Tim Takaro, M.D.
Jim Trombold, M.D.,Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility
Norma Jean Germond
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