WASHINGTON, D.C. - Washington will not trade quality for speed in the clean-up of radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Attorney General Christine Gregoire told a U.S. Senate Committee today.
Audio clip of Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire testimony.
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Gregoire said she and other Washington citizens remain skeptical of the Department of Energy's accelerated cleanup plan for Hanford because the federal agency has not provided critical details about it.
The Attorney General said that while a faster schedule is welcome, the state will remain resolute in its insistence on a full and complete cleanup of dangerous wastes at the site.
"The bottom line is this," Gregoire told senators. "The accelerated cleanup plan can't depend on a shortened yardstick of success."
The Hanford Reservation produced fuel for nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War that followed. It contains more radioactive waste than any other site in the nation, including 53 million gallons in tanks that are decades past their expected lifespans. At least one million gallons has seeped into the ground and begun to contaminate groundwater that flows into the Columbia River.
Gregoire called on Congress to provide adequate funding for the cleanup and to demand that D.O.E. abide by state and federal laws to remove highly radioactive waste from underground tanks.
"For the Pacific Northwest, the stakes are as clear as they are enormous," Gregoire said. "We must get on with the cleanup to protect public health, safety and the environment."
ATTORNEY GENERAL CHRISTINE GREGOIRE
FOR PRESENTATION TO
U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
OVERSIGHT HEARING ON THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT (EM) PROGRAM’S ACCELERATED CLEANUP INITIATIVE, AND PROPOSED CHANGES TO EM’S SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PROGRAM.
Good morning Chairman Bingaman, Senator Murkowski and Members of the Committee. Thank you for this opportunity to testify today.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is one of several sites comprising the Nation’s former nuclear weapons production complex. The fuel fabrication, irradiation, and chemical separations processes undertaken at Hanford played a key role in producing the weapons that facilitated the end of World War II, and provided the foundation of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Hanford thus contributed mightily toward establishing a legacy of freedom around the world.
Today I am here to talk to you about a related, but different legacy. This legacy is characterized by the fact that the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Hanford site holds more high-level radioactive waste than all other U.S. sites combined. Hanford has 53 million gallons of highly radioactive and hazardous waste in 177 aging, leaking underground storage tanks just 7 miles from the Columbia River. An estimated 67 of these tanks have already leaked more than one million gallons of this toxic brew into the ground, and it is seeping into the groundwater that flows to the River. Hanford has nearly two thousand cesium/strontium capsules containing over 5 million curies of radiation, stored in underwater pools. And it has 2,100 tons of corroding spent nuclear fuel and sludge—about 80% of the Department of Energy’s inventory—in leak-prone holding pools just 400 yards from the Columbia.
Of course, this is only part of the picture. But it should give you an idea of the scope of the problem. To understand the seriousness of the risk, however, you must understand that the Columbia River is nothing less than the lifeblood of Eastern Washington and the entire Pacific Northwest. Farmers use the River to irrigate crops that feed millions of Americans and people throughout the world. Shippers use it to transport agricultural products to national and international markets. The salmon and other fish that live and spawn in the river are a vital part of our heritage and economy. Families and businesses depend on the River to power homes and factories in Washington, Canada and neighboring states. Finally, the Hanford site is just yards from the last free-flowing section of the Columbia, a magnificent stretch of river of such incomparable beauty that it was recently designated as a national monument.
For the Pacific Northwest the stakes are as clear as they are enormous. We must act decisively to clean up Hanford, and to rid our children, and their children, of this legacy of environmental abuse. To be sure, completing this job has taken, and will for the foreseeable future continue to take, a monumental effort. Today, I want to share with you some of our victories in this effort, as well as the tremendous obstacles still before us.
The Department of Energy has made important progress at Hanford. After decades of inaction, the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA) between the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the State of Washington marked a decisive moment at Hanford. It was a mutual decision to work together rather than fight. To clean up rather than fence off. And to spend money on fixing the problem rather than fighting in court. We made the right choices when we signed the TPA back in 1989.
Since then, the Department of Energy has moved 3.3 million tons of contaminated soil and debris inland from the shoreline of the Columbia. It has begun dismantling the nine reactors that line the River and is placing them into interim safe storage. And although it is slipping behind schedule, it has begun to move spent fuel from the large holding pools by the River’s edge -- the so-called k basins – to a safer, dry-storage site away from the River.
But the real watershed came in 1999 when the state finally sued DOE to get the tank waste retrieval work on schedule. That suit followed repeated delays by DOE in its program to transfer pumpable liquids from the single-shell tanks to Hanford’s newer double-shell tanks, a process called "interim stabilization." The lawsuit resulted in an agreed timetable for cleanup and, so far, DOE is complying. What was most significant about the Interim Stabilization Consent Decree is that it required that DOE change its focus to deal with the worst first – those projects that would have the most immediate and important impact on protecting human health and the environment.
Despite this progress, tremendous obstacles impede our efforts to ensure a speedy and effective cleanup. I have been working on the Hanford project since 1988, so I have some perspective on those obstacles. In that time, I have seen administrations come and administrations go. And every time a new administration comes in, it wants to rethink the plan, the strategy and the funding for Hanford. That uncertainty is a major part of the problem. Moreover, it is a truly bipartisan phenomenon – it happens with Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
In 13 years since signing the Tri-Party Agreement, we’ve had four presidents and six Secretaries of Energy. Each administration has spent time and money rethinking the Hanford cleanup. Each ultimately came to the same conclusions:
- There is no quick fix. It may have taken a miraculously short period of time to put Hanford on the map, but the contamination that remains from decades of nuclear weapons production will last thousands of years. It is far more difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube than it is to let it out.
- It is far too easy to become distracted by paper shuffling and ignore the real work, and the real risk, at hand.
- The Hanford cleanup is painfully expensive – and the longer we wait, the more those costs mount. We have been told, time after time, that we need only to "wait for the science" to provide a cheaper, better method to deal with this waste. While we’ve been waiting for the science, over a million gallons of highly radioactive waste has leaked into the ground, substantially increasing the risk to human health and the environment, and making the cleanup work even more expensive and hazardous.
- Vitrification of Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste into stable glass logs is the best answer to the tank waste problem. DOE has studied this issue over and over again.
- Communication with the public is essential to making real progress.
- Finally, and most importantly, we must get on with the cleanup to protect public health and the environment.
So it is against this history of changing strategies that we now find ourselves considering suggestions for a "new," "accelerated" cleanup strategy. This strategy was manifested in the Department of Energy’s draft "Performance Management Plan for the Accelerated Cleanup of the Hanford Site," published by DOE on May 1st of this year. Unfortunately, the plan lacked the details that we, and the public, need to discern DOE’s intent on a number of critical issues.
For example, the plan did not articulate key assumptions on three key issues: 1. The extent to which DOE intends to retrieve and treat high-level radioactive waste from single-shell tanks; 2. how it plans to effectuate accelerated "closure" of the tanks; and 3. the extent to which it intends to retrieve, treat, and ship to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant ("WIPP") transuranic wastes buried at the site. The plan also did not reveal a disposal pathway for 1,936 cesium and strontium capsules--containing approximately 37% of the site’s total radioactivity—currently stored in water-cooled pool cells at Hanford’s Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility (WESF).
The plan also appears to assume an expansive point of compliance for groundwater contamination. This is the point at which cleanup levels for groundwater contamination must be attained and suggests that DOE intends to leave substantially more contamination at the site than currently contemplated by the Tri-Party Agreement and more than justified under applicable regulations.
Finally, the Plan lacks any specific actions to involve stakeholders and the public in revising and implementing its strategies.
Not only does the plan raise significant questions about how much cleanup DOE really intends to do at Hanford, DOE also is providing untimely and insufficient budget information concerning the cleanup program. The Tri-Party Agreement requires that DOE inform the State of Washington and the Environmental Protection Agency of DOE’s and the President’s budget request, and its assessment of the impact the requested budget would have on DOE’s ability to meet cleanup deadlines in the Tri-Party Agreement. If appropriated funds fall short of funds needed to comply with the Tri-Party Agreement, the parties are to attempt to agree on appropriate adjustments in the work scope. Without the budget information, that dialogue simply cannot occur.
As you can imagine, these developments have contributed to great skepticism among Hanford watchers, and rumors abound. This is what the public, and frankly, I fear the Department of Energy means by accelerated cleanup:
1. Reclassifying high-level radioactive waste to low-level waste, so that it may be disposed of in-place in leaky, undergroundstorage tanks already decades beyond their design life;
2. Leaving buried at Hanford in unlined trenches tons of radioactive transuranic waste that Congress intended be cleaned up and stored at WIPP; and
3. Moving points of compliance for groundwater contamination to make cleanup easier.
Let me be clear. Washington State will not sit back and allow the Federal government to declare the Hanford cleanup a success by simply moving the goal line. That is not "accelerated cleanup," by our standards. We have far too much at stake to allow our legacy to be defined by how much we leave behind.
What, then, is Washington State’s vision of accelerated cleanup? It is a cleanup guided by the following principles:
- Cleaning up the worst first. We must protect the health and safety of the public and the environment by focusing on the greatest hazards first. For example, we must safely retrieve and stabilize Hanford’s tank wastes without delay, and before catastrophe strikes.
- Using the best science and technology available.
- Living by the law as required by Congress. When Congress enacted the Federal Facility Compliance Act in 1992, it made clear its intent that the Federal government be required to comply with all Federal, state, and local requirements to the same extent as any private person is required to do so. DOE cleanup at Hanford must comply with applicable requirements of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Washington’s Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA), and the Tri-Party Agreement, which implements the EPA’s and the State’s authority under CERCLA, RCRA, and HWMA. For example, we expect DOE to remove as much waste as technically possible from Hanford’s underground storage tanks.
- Practicing sound management to be cost effective. All too often the rising costs of Federal compliance with environmental requirements has been blamed on the states. Washington has been incredibly patient, flexible, and creative in dealing with the Department of Energy during the thirteen years since the Tri-Party Agreement was signed. To accelerate cleanup, DOE must improve its own management and operate in a more cost-effective manner. For example, it must emphasize performance-based contracts that provide incentives to meet or beat regulatory requirements and that impose significant penalties on contractors that miss such deadlines.
DOE must use integrated, life-cycle baselines as a management tool. Use of such baselines help managers identify the resource and financial needs for projects, the interrelationship between different activities, and the consequences that changes to one aspect of the project will have on the remainder of the project.
DOE must remove unnecessary duplication and bureaucratic process from its own contract management.
5. Effectively communicating with Congress, regulators, stakeholders and other members of the public, and within DOE itself. There is great distrust of the Department of Energy, and unless DOE overcomes that distrust, it is destined for failure. First and foremost, DOE must include in the development and implementation of any accelerated cleanup plan a process for meaningful stakeholder and public participation. Further, DOE’s intentions must be transparent. Decisions cannot be made on the basis of hidden or unstated assumptions. It must be a deliberative and informed process, for all involved. DOE must also improve its communications with Congress, to give the appropriators the assurance they need to provide sufficient, reliable, and stable funding to allow DOE to effectively carry out its cleanup mission. Finally, DOE must put its internal communications in order. It must strengthen communications between DOE Headquarters and operations offices, so that the local DOE officials are confident of their authority and can effectively interact with regulators, stakeholders, and the public
These are the principles that define Washington State’s expectations for accelerated cleanup at Hanford. While certainly there were things we liked about the draft the Department of Energy submitted to us on May 1, such as its proposal to accelerate vitrification of the first 10 percent of the high-level radioactive tank waste, the plan comes up short when held up to the light of Washington State’s expectations for accelerated cleanup.
I have been around this block many times with DOE, but I will keep an open mind that this time will be different. As I testify to you today, my client, the Director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, and his staff are working hard with the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others to try to transform DOE’s draft plan into a plan that the State of Washington can accept.
I am told that progress is being made. For example, the parties are exploring ways to enhance the operation of the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) to enable vitrification of high-level radioactive tank waste even faster than currently planned. They are identifying high-risk single-shell tanks from which waste will be retrieved sooner. They are beginning to wrestle with the difficult issues that will need to be addressed in developing plans for retrieving wastes and closing the tank farms. DOE has agreed to look at all transuranic wastes at Hanford—not just those placed there after 1970—and is working with the regulators on a process for deciding the best treatment and/or disposal approach. They are evaluating alternative disposal approaches for the highly radioactive cesium/strontium capsules at Hanford. DOE will remove from the plan unfounded assumptions regarding points of compliance for groundwater contamination in the Central Plateau of the site. The parties are working to integrate groundwater monitoring requirements of multiple regulatory schemes to improve efficiency. And finally, DOE has recommitted to incorporate cleanup decisions into the Tri-Party Agreement, which necessarily requires opportunities for public comment and participation.
The parties are attempting to reach agreement on a revised plan by July 15. If agreement is reached, the revised plan will be provided to DOE Assistant Secretary Jessie Roberson, for use with OMB and Congress, in developing a supplemental FY 2003 budget request.
They have set for themselves an ambitious schedule to work through this process. At this point, I cannot tell you whether or not they will reach agreement. My client is optimistic that they can. I am hopeful that he is right, but remain skeptical that the Department of Energy and the State of Washington have a shared vision of accelerated cleanup at Hanford. The vision will define the choices we make and, ultimately, the legacy we will leave for future generations.
Mr. Chairman, the Tri-Cities and the entire Pacific Northwest, made sacrifices to help win World War II and the cold war. We are proud of our contribution to the Nation and to the cause of freedom throughout the world. It is past time that our Nation finish the cleanup job at Hanford, and remove this significant threat to public health, the environment, and our regional economy.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.