Wed, Mar

DOE Cleanup Chief Tours Nuclear Reservation

The Department of Energy still is evaluating its options on Initiative 297, said Paul Golan, DOE's acting assistant secretary for environmental management, last week.

The Department of Energy still is evaluating its options on Initiative 297, said Paul Golan, DOE's acting assistant secretary for environmental management, last week.

Golan, who holds the position sometimes called the cleanup czar, spent two days visiting the Hanford nuclear reservation just two weeks after residents of Washington state voted to ban importing radioactive waste to Hanford until waste already there is cleaned up.

In Benton County, Washington, the only county that voted against the initiative, residents have been concerned that DOE's nationwide cleanup plan calls for importing some low-level radioactive waste to Hanford but sending far more radioactive material from the site to Nevada, New Mexico and possibly South Carolina.

Speculation has focused on whether DOE will challenge the legality of the initiative.

The nation will have to work together to clean up and shut down its nuclear sites left from the Cold War, Golan said. Hanford made plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program. When DOE's nuclear complex was built, it was integrated across the nation and the cleanup must be the same, Golan said.


"We will do it on our watch," he said.

DOE continues to push to open Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a national nuclear repository, he said. Some of Hanford's worst waste is planned to be turned into glass logs at a $5.8 billion vitrification plant now being built at Hanford and sent to Yucca Mountain for disposal. The state of Nevada is fighting to prevent the mountain from being used as a national repository for nuclear waste.

Just as it took years of work to open a national repository in the New Mexico desert for DOE wastes tainted with plutonium, it will take some time for Yucca to open for high-level radioactive waste and nuclear industry waste, Golan said. Hanford wastes already are being sent to the New Mexico repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.

DOE also is working to find a place to ship leftover plutonium, Golan said. Hanford officials would like to start moving the plutonium kept in a heavily guarded vault in central Hanford to a more appropriate location in 2005.

"We're looking for a complete solution, and we do not have that yet," Golan said, although talks continue to send the plutonium to the Savannah River, S.C., nuclear site. The Hanford Advisory Board and boards for other nuclear sites across the nation are warning that challenges to disposing of waste at several DOE sites, including Hanford, are creating the risk of gridlock.

In a letter still making the rounds of site advisory groups for signatures, nine board chairmen warn that the challenges to waste disposal create the potential for skyrocketing costs and delays in cleanup. They're calling for a national forum to produce a technically and fiscally sound solution to dispose of waste and nuclear materials across the DOE complex.

Golan said he had not seen the letter, but that DOE is committed to working with communities and regulators.

He said he expects substantial progress in cleanup at Hanford and other DOE nuclear sites to continue in the next few years.

"Look at the magnitude of work and how much safer Hanford has become in the last three years," Golan said after touring the site. "Urgent risks are removed."

In 2004, Hanford workers emptied the last of the high-level radioactive liquid waste from the site's leak-prone underground tanks and finished stabilizing the plutonium left at the end of the Cold War in the Plutonium Finishing Plant. Within the last month, workers finished removing 2,300 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel that were corroding in leak-prone indoor pools 400 yards from the Columbia River.

Progress also has been made in preparing old reactors for long-term storage and digging up contaminated dirt near the Columbia River.

The tour "left a lot of good impressions of Hanford," Golan said.

He's pleased with the contractors at the site and with its local DOE leadership, he said, singling out Roy Schepens and Keith Klein, who manage DOE's two Hanford cleanup programs in the Tri-Cities.

Golan has served as acting assistant administrator since Jessie Roberson resigned in July, but this was at least his sixth trip to Hanford, he said. He was worked at DOE headquarters since 2000.

He met with representatives of the Yakamas, the Nez Perce and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on Tuesday and Wednesday to continue government-to-government discussions, he said.

DOE has offered the tribes eight additional internships for high school or college students to work on science or technical projects, Golan said. He's also interested in more use of a Mid-Columbia-based bus equipped for training and education, he said.

After Golan left Washington, D.C., to tour the Rocky Flats, Colo., and Hanford nuclear sites this week, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham resigned. Abraham had a strong commitment to nuclear cleanup and seeing him leave is tough, Golan said.

When Abraham was energy secretary, cleanup spending at Hanford increased to about $2 billion a year, although that is expected to decline in coming years.

Golan also discussed the protests that have become routine when Hanford contracts have been awarded in recent years. The transition of the contracts have been delayed while protests are decided.

"We're going to have to deal with it," he said. Because of the strong bid proposals made for Hanford contracts, the losing contractors' protests are understandable, he said. With substantial progress made to clean up Hanford along the Columbia River, attention is turning to how to clean up central Hanford. It has some of the most technically challenging and heavily contaminated cleanup projects.

DOE will be applying knowledge learned on other cleanup projects, Golan said. The goal is to keep the workers safe, protect the environment and respect the taxpayer, he said.

"We're not going to be perfect," he said. But "there are a lot of great things we can do here."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News