There’s reason for optimism in the year ahead at Hanford

2021 was an eventful year for cleanup work at the Hanford site.

That goes double for our Washington State Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program team, which is responsible for overseeing the U.S. Department of Energy’s cleanup of Hanford’s nuclear legacy.

A lot of important work was accomplished, and we look forward to the work to be done in 2022.

PFP cleanup

Late last year, we saw the demolition finish for the Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP), which was among the most contaminated facilities at Hanford. When operational, the plant took liquid plutonium and processed it into buttons, which were sent on to weapons production facilities. The plant produced nearly two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium stockpile.

Upon closure of PFP in October 1996, plutonium-uranium solids, solutions, residues and polycubes, along with gloveboxes and pencil tanks, needed to be removed before demolition.

More than 90 buildings associated with the PFP Complex were demolished. In December last year, the last boxes of plutonium-contaminated debris left the PFP site.

To bring this project to its successful conclusion, Ecology, DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the Washington State Department of Health worked closely to resolve concerns of worker risk and public safety with improved work processes in safety, engineering, monitoring and regulatory review.

Direct-Feed Low-Activity Waste

Last year also brought construction certification of the Direct-Feed Low-Activity Waste (DFLAW) facility, which is expected to begin treating tank waste in 2023.

This process included extensive review and evaluation by structural and corrosion engineers, inspections for installation consistent with design, physical configuration audits and a final certification that the system and facility were constructed in compliance with the Hanford Dangerous Waste Permit.

On the permitting side of DFLAW, Ecology focused on processing 50 modifications to the Hanford Dangerous Waste Permit, in addition to an approval order for air permitting to support startup of the new treatment facility.

Ambient Air Boundary

Our agency and DOE developed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) outlining the new Hanford Ambient Air Boundary and the measures used to maintain the boundary. The MOA became necessary as progress at Hanford had some unintended consequences, such as increased public access to B Reactor Museum events, changes in oversight at Rattlesnake Mountain and regularly observed accidental public access.

Applications for air permits in Washington require the permittee to demonstrate that emissions from the proposal ensure pollutants cannot cause or contribute to a violation of any ambient air quality standard and that toxic air pollutants must be sufficiently low to protect human health and safety.

The ambient air boundary, often the fence line, is the border where we consider the public to potentially have access, and a facility must ensure emissions that disperse outside of that boundary meet the ambient air quality standard and remain sufficiently low to protect human health and safety.

Soil and groundwater cleanup

Interim Records of Decision also were issued this past year, identifying actions to address primary groundwater contaminants in the central plateau, and in the area of B Plant and Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX) operations.

This accomplishment represents a significant amount of work and coordination between all of the Tri-Party Agencies as we advance cleanup of soil and groundwater in the area, with continued monitoring of cleanup effectiveness to inform any future adjustments to actions.

Other projects

Those were some of the long-term projects our program led or was a major participant in.

Other projects included coordinating closely with the Yakama Nation to resolve comments on state cleanup requirements for the EPA-led development of a Record of Decision at B Reactor and C Reactor, which will guide cleanup of soil and groundwater along the river corridor.

We also partnered with EPA and DOE  to resolve structural stability issues for three underground structures at or near the PFP site, which posed risk to human health and the environment in the event of a structure collapse.

Staffing challenges

On top of all this important work, our office entered into 2021 with a new Nuclear Waste program manager operating under Covid-19 health restrictions during a hiring freeze.

We experienced several retirements, promotions and transfers. Our office also created new positions and navigated through a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for Ecology, DOE and its contractors. We developed transition plans for team members leaving and assigned critical work to keep work moving.

Needless to say, we wrapped up 2021 and are starting 2022 with a major recruitment push. This includes 14 active job postings and eight more positions to be posted soon. If you or someone you know has an interest in working on the most complex cleanup project in the United States, we’re looking to add engineers, permit writers, permit coordinators, inspectors, project managers, IT professionals and administrative team members.

Looking ahead

There is always more to do at Hanford.

In 2022 our planned work includes continued coordination with DOE, EPA, tribal nations, various state and local agencies, the Hanford Advisory Board and the public to develop work plans, removal actions at the PUREX complex, permitting to support DFLAW facility startup, and renewal of the Hanford site-wide permit.

Our program has permits with other non-Hanford entities, and we are planning to renew the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard dangerous waste permit and finalize preparation of the Perma-Fix Northwest permit renewal for public comment. We also plan to issue three wastewater discharge permit renewals and various air approvals.

We have optimism regarding paths forward with ongoing holistic negotiations with DOE and EPA, including setting pace and timing of tank waste retrievals, treatment, disposal and closure, along with actions to address leaking tanks and aging facilities going into the future.

2021 was a year like no other, and our team at Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program is looking forward to progressing cleanup of Hanford even further in 2022.

David Bowen is the manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program.

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