State, DOE agree on Hanford cleanup deadlines

State, DOE agree on Hanford cleanup deadlines
A sign warns of radiation on the Hanford nuclear reservation Thursday, April 3, 2008 near Richland, Wash.
RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) - Washington state and federal officials announced a court-enforceable schedule Tuesday for cleaning up the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, ending more than two years of negotiations that followed dozens of missed deadlines.

Southeast Washington's sprawling Hanford nuclear reservation, created as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II, has been a focus of extensive cleanup efforts for two decades. In that time, the pact that governs cleanup has been changed more than 400 times.

Washington state sued the Energy Department last November over missed cleanup deadlines, though the two sides settled part of the lawsuit in February. That agreement accelerated cleanup of contaminated groundwater along the neighboring Columbia River, among other things, and both sides said it would shrink the 586-square-mile site to just 75 square miles by 2015.

The consent decree that was filed Tuesday morning with the U.S. District Court in Spokane sets new deadlines for the remaining points of contention: emptying underground waste tanks and building a plant to treat that waste.

The parties also agreed to review the schedule every six years to examine areas where work could be hastened.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire made the announcement at Hanford with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who was visiting the site for the first time, Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

"All of our energy now is to be devoted to where it belongs - to cleaning up Hanford," Chu said.

The new schedule, while longer than Washington state officials hoped, is reasonable, Gregoire said. "It is aggressive, it is achievable, and it is enforceable," she said.

Hanford produced plutonium for the world's first atomic blast, the Trinity Test, and for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, effectively ending World War II. The site continued to contribute to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal throughout the Cold War.

The remnants of that effort, 53 million gallons of radioactive brew, are stewing in 177 underground tanks. Some of those tanks are known to have leaked into the aquifer, threatening the river, and 144 tanks remain to be emptied of liquid waste and sludge.

Under the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement, signed by the state Department of Ecology, the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, all tanks were to have been emptied by 2024 and the waste treated by 2028. The new agreement requires that all waste be treated by 2047.

The $12.2 billion plant that will convert the waste into glasslike logs for permanent disposal underground - also far behind its 2011 operating deadline - now will begin operating in its test phase by 2019 and begin full-scale operations by 2022.

Oregon officials, who are not officially party to the talks but fear Hanford contamination could endanger the Columbia River and communities downstream, signed a separate consent decree that allows them to be consulted and participate in talks before any future schedule changes are made.

The agreement will be available for public comment Sept. 24 through Nov. 9. The parties also still must consult with area American Indian tribes, including the Yakama Nation.

Russell Jim, an environmental restoration expert who has advocated Hanford cleanup for the tribe since 1977, said tribal leaders still must evaluate the agreement before passing judgment. But he called the legally binding consent decree "historic."

Chu also met with area tribal leaders at a dinner Monday night to explain the agreement, he said.

"That in itself was a historic event too," Jim said. "The first time an energy secretary has ever sat down with the tribes."

Each year, the federal government spends roughly $2 billion at Hanford, about one-third of the federal budget for nuclear site cleanup nationwide. The Obama administration also steered nearly $2 billion in stimulus dollars to Hanford cleanup this year.

The Energy Department said 1,700 jobs at the site have been saved or created with that money.