The Department of Energy is entrusted with numerous responsibilities that will help shape America’s future economy and security -- from helping to understand the origins of the universe, to building a clean energy economy, to protecting our nation from the threat of nuclear weapons, we are tackling some of the most pressing and complex problems of our time.
One of the most important tasks of the Department is to clean up the legacy of nuclear materials production during World War II and the Cold War. In America's time of need, the Hanford Site in Washington was critical to the production of plutonium. Today, we remain strongly committed to the American people and the communities around Hanford to clean up the effects of this activity.
Completing the Office of River Protection (ORP) mission of stabilizing 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored in Hanford’s 177 tanks is one of the highest priorities for the Department, and for me personally. To that end, we recently shared a Framework for discussion with the state of Washington as we work together to resolve issues regarding completion of the waste treatment mission at the Hanford Site in light of the technical issues that have emerged with parts of the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP). This Framework, in our view, represents a prudent and reasonable approach to immobilize waste in a glass form as soon as practicable while working to resolve the technical issues.
It’s critically important to me that the Department continues working closely with the state of Washington as we advance this essential cleanup project. To be clear, this Framework is not a proposal, but rather a way to aid discussions as we work to resolve concerns regarding completion of the waste treatment mission and work to put this project on a sustainable path.
It’s important to remember how we got here. The Hanford Site was involved in the production of plutonium for 40 years as part of our national defense efforts. The WTP is a massive, complex and first-of-a-kind, chemical and nuclear plant that will turn a portion of this defense waste into a glass form to keep the radioactivity separated from the environment. The WTP consists of several different buildings:
- The Low-Activity Waste (LAW) Facility will turn the mostly liquid portion of the waste into a glass waste form;
- The High-Level Waste (HLW) Facility will turn the high-level waste into a glass waste form;
- The Pretreatment Facility (PT) will optimize the separation of the low-activity waste and the high-activity waste;
- The Analytical Laboratory will ensure that the glass waste form produced by the LAW and HLW facilities meets all regulatory requirements and standards; and
- The Balance of Facilities provides the additional industrial capabilities and infrastructure needed for the WTP to operate.
The current design requires that all waste treated at the WTP be processed through the PT Facility, but this requires waiting until the technical issues are resolved. Therefore, we have identified an alternative approach for immobilizing waste as soon as we can, while simultaneously resolving the remaining technical challenges at both the PT and the HLW facilities.
The phased approach described in the Framework would start with immobilizing the low-activity portion of the waste. It just makes sense to find ways to start immobilizing the waste while we continue working on the technical issues. By beginning waste vitrification sooner and developing alternative waste treatment pathways, this Framework describes a path forward that could complete the tank waste mission sooner, compared to waiting until all technical issues are resolved and the PT facility is completed.
The Department has made tremendous progress in the cleanup efforts at Hanford, as you can see in the infographic above. But we still have a long way to go. It is critical that we move forward as expeditiously as possible to begin immobilizing the tank waste, and it is critically important to me that the Department continue to work closely with the state of Washington as we continue to advance this essential cleanup project. We look forward to engaging with the state of Washington, as well as stakeholders, to discuss our approach to continuing to move the tank waste mission forward in a sustainable manner.