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Originally published Monday, March 31, 2014 at 5:27 PM

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State proposes nuclear-waste cleanup deadlines at Hanford

The U.S. government has failed, repeatedly, to meet deadlines at the Hanford nuclear reservation, so Washington has issued its own schedule for the cleanup.

The Associated Press

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SPOKANE — Frustrated by federal government delays, the state of Washington on Monday issued its own plan for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated nuclear-weapons site.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said his plan seeks to keep the cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation on schedule.

For decades, Hanford made plutonium for nuclear weapons and is now cleaning up the radioactive waste left from the work. The waste is stored in 177 giant underground tanks, some of which are leaking, on the sprawling site near Richland.

Inslee said he has become concerned about the federal government’s failure to meet cleanup deadlines imposed by a 2010 federal-court decree. Nearly all the court-imposed deadlines are likely to be missed, he said.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, in a news release Monday, said he shared Inslee’s desire to amend the federal consent decree governing Hanford cleanup. The Department of Energy (DOE) released its own revised plan on Monday.

“Both of our plans move in the near term toward processing low activity waste and recognize the need to overcome technical problems in other areas of the project,” Moniz said. “We will review the state’s proposal and look ahead to further discussions.”

The DOE said the scientific complexity of the work demanded changes in the agreement.

Of particular concern is the stalled construction of a one-of-a-kind waste-treatment plant (WTP) to convert the most dangerous radioactive wastes into a glasslike substance for eventual burial.

“Since the consent decree was entered, extensive analysis by DOE and independent experts has shown that the WTP as currently designed cannot be assured for 40 years of safe operation,” the DOE said. “A new approach is needed.”

The DOE proposed changing the decree by focusing first on the liquid portion of the waste and continuing to research solutions for the rest of it.

Inslee complained that the latest federal proposal does not provide sufficient detail.

Meanwhile, Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said they were prepared to take legal action against the DOE to keep the cleanup on schedule.

“Although I appreciate Secretary Moniz placing a high priority on Hanford, the state needs a plan that includes a detailed and comprehensive path forward,” Inslee said.

The state’s plan demands:

• A step-by-step schedule to complete construction of the waste-treatment plant and begin treating waste. The state’s plan requires the completion of all waste treatment by the original deadline of 2047.

• Specific requirements to remove waste from leaking single-walled tanks as soon as possible. The state also wants at least eight new double-walled tanks to be built to hold waste from leaking tanks until the treatment plant is completed.

• New environmental-safety requirements for groundwater treatment and to minimize leaks.

The state and federal governments made a deal in 1989 to clean up Hanford. In 2008, the state filed a lawsuit in federal court when it became clear the DOE would be unable to meet key deadlines.

The lawsuit was settled in 2010 with an agreement on a series of new deadlines for completing the retrieval and treatment of 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive and hazardous waste from Hanford’s 177 underground tanks.

The federal government has since informed the state that nearly all of those consent-decree deadlines are in jeopardy.

The DOE must notify the state by April 15 about whether it accepts the state’s proposed plan. If it is not accepted, the federal government must explain why.

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