Our Voice: Despite setbacks, Hanford cleaner because of TPA

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Tri-Party Agreement on Hanford cleanup, and in another 25 years the Department of Energy still won't have achieved all the goals outlined in the historic pact.

But in the meantime, it's clear that Hanford is cleaner than it would be had the landmark agreement among the Department of Energy, federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Ecology never been signed.

The TPA gives the state some legal clout to pressure DOE to comply with the document's cleanup deadlines. That alone is worth celebrating.

The gigantic mess left from 40 years of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear weapons program is the result of leaving the federal government to its own devices at Hanford.

The independent oversight that the TPA provides is essential to creating the public support needed to complete the costly cleanup efforts. About $30 billion has been spent on cleanup. DOE estimates remaining costs at about $113 billion.

Much work has been completed. Annette Cary's front-page story today outlines the progress. Removing more than 2,500 tons of nuclear fuel from underwater storage in the leaky K Basins near the Columbia River was one of the most significant accomplishments. There are scores of others.

But Roy Gephart, recently retired chief environmental scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, told Cary that he questions how much has been accomplished in 25 years.

"There has been significant waste management on the site," he said. But he sees little reduction in the estimated 400 million curies of radioactivity as measured in waste and materials at Hanford, and little progress in removing the approximately 400,000 tons of chemicals in Hanford tanks, soil and water.

"Where are the successes in reducing risk?" he asked. "We're not doing much active, permanent cleanup," Gephart told Cary.

Dealing with 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks is proving more difficult than anticipated 25 years ago. Technical issues have stalled construction of the vitrification plant, which is supposed to turn the tank wastes into glass logs for permanent disposal.

The agreement has had more than 1,200 deadlines and more than 640 changes to deadlines or other modifications. The flexibility that's built into the pact has proved to be one of its most important features.

The TPA covered Hanford cleanup for 21 years before a portion of the work was moved under a court-enforced consent decree in 2010 because of problems meeting deadlines for emptying radioactive waste tanks and treating the waste.

Once it was apparent that DOE wouldn't meet the consent decree's deadlines, both sides produced plans for changing the document. When the two sides couldn't agree on changes last month, the state triggered a 40-day dispute resolution process outlined in the consent decree.

We argued that the move was premature because it gives the courts too much power over the course of Hanford cleanup. And we worried that the state's focus on tank wastes would delay other important Hanford projects.

Experience suggests that a judge is less likely to come up with a better cleanup plan than one produced through direct, voluntary talks between DOE and the state.

But the state having legal, enforceable rights to press for Hanford cleanup through the consent decree still is preferable to simply trusting the federal government to complete the job.

The consent decree is dictating the path forward today, but the Tri-Party Agreement is the foundation the decree is built on. The state's authority to force DOE's hand at Hanford is crucial to keeping cleanup on track.