Background and History
The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) is the sector of the federal government concerned with energy policies and regulations for handling nuclear material. The USDOE was created when President Jimmy Carter signed the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977. The department consolidated three federal regulatory agencies: the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Federal Power Commission.
USDOE's role at Hanford
Since 1977, USDOE has been the lead government agency managing the Hanford Site and is responsible for the cleanup efforts. Primary cleanup methods include:
- Transferring nuclear waste from single-shell tanks to more reliable double-shell tanks until it can be vitrified (made into glass logs)
- Treating contaminated groundwater
- Constructing engineered barriers underground to prevent contaminated groundwater from reaching the Columbia River
- Excavating contaminated dirt and vegetation and moving it to a lined landfill that contains leaks and alerts workers that they’ve occurred.
The Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supervise and evaluate cleanup work. The contract between these three agencies is known as the Tri-Party Agreement and provides the legal structure for the cleanup.
USDOE's main concern at Hanford
Fifty years of nuclear production and its associated waste have created costly, long-term environmental problems at the Hanford Site. The greatest challenge is the 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks, 67 of which have leaked at least one million gallons to soil and groundwater. USDOE is transferring the waste from 149 older tanks to 28 newer ones that can store leaks and notify workers. A $13 billion waste treatment plant is under construction to turn high-level radioactive waste into solid glass logs, known as “vitrification.” A solid waste form can be more safely stored away from people and the environment while its radioactivity decays.
To manage and treat contaminated groundwater at Hanford, USDOE constructs underground barriers in contaminated areas to stop groundwater movement or trap pollutants within the barrier. They also run six pump-and-treat facilities that extract 2 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater per year, treat it with chemicals to remove pollutants, and then pump the treated water back underground.
Treating contaminated groundwater and the waste stored in underground tanks are major cleanup priorities for USDOE and the two agencies that regulate their work at Hanford.
USDOE Hanford Offices
A workforce numbering more than 11,000 people is involved in the day-to-day operations of Hanford cleanup. Employees at two local USDOE offices oversee cleanup work, which is done by contracting agencies. Each contractor, or their subcontractor, has an assigned scope of work to complete under USDOE’s guidance.
Richland Operations Office
The Richland Operations Office responsibilities include:
- Moving 1,200 metric tons of spent fuel away from the Columbia River corridor and restoring the land along it with clean soil and native vegetation
- Demolishing old facilities along the Columbia River
- Stabilizing 4 tons of plutonium
- Placing reactors in safe storage by demolishing support buildings and “cocooning” their radioactive cores in concrete
- Maintaining site infrastructure
- Containing and treating contaminated groundwater
Contractors at the Richland Operations Office:
HPMC Occupational Medical Services
CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company (CHPRC)
Mission Support Alliance (MSA)
Washington Closure Hanford (WCH)
Office of River Protection
The Office of River Protection was created in 1998 to manage the USDOE’s largest, most complex environmental cleanup project – Hanford’s tank waste retrieval, treatment, and disposal project. The Office of River Protection’s mission is to protect the Columbia River by treating the 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored underground in 177 tanks.
Contractors at the Office of River Protection
Advanced Technologies and Laboratories International, Inc. (ATL)
Bechtel National, Inc. (BNI)
Washington River Protection Solutions, LLC (WRPS)