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Hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee - FY2013 Budget for the Department of Energy

Statement

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Location: Washington, DC

Today, during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pressed U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu on whether the President's Fiscal Year 2013 budget request for DOE keeps the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) on schedule to be complete and operational by 2019. Cantwell also questioned Chu on whether the right oversight was in place at Hanford on the WTP design-related safety and technical concerns raised by employees. In addition, Cantwell encouraged the Secretary to expedite DOE's approval of the transfer of land from the Hanford reservation to the community.

The DOE Fiscal Year 2013 budget request maintains roughly level funding for Hanford overall while calling for substantial increases (roughly 29 percent) in a range of research, development and deployment programs designed to diversify America's energy mix and compete in world energy markets.

"Obviously you know that [Hanford] is one of the most complex and largest contaminated sites in the world," Cantwell said to Secretary Chu at today's hearing. Click here to watch a video of Cantwell's exchange with Secretary Chu. "And our concerns about making sure that we continue to get clean-up done in a timely fashion is of critical importance. Not just to the state of Washington but to the nation. Are you confident with this level of funding that we will have that [Waste Treatment] plant open and operational in 2019?"

Secretary Chu responded: "We feel we're going to meet the legal obligations for FY13 with this budget. ...there was an ideal funding profile for the completion of the WTP plant, the vitrification plant that would call for more aggressive spending this year, next year and the following years. …That funding profile is not in the cards anymore because of our budgets. So because of that we know that there is a risk that we could slip schedule. …This is, in my mind, the most complex nuclear project the world has under-taken, let alone the United States."

Cantwell proceeded to ask Secretary Chu if he thought the right oversight was in place at Hanford on the WTP design-related safety and technical concerns raised by employees. Chu responded: "I think we've worked very hard, both the deputy secretary and I have worked very hard to make sure we have essentially our "A-Team' in place in the direct oversight of the contractors. …And because of the importance of this project a lot of these discussions go right into my office. I've spoken to the CEO of the head contractor Bechtel, Riley Bechtel, probably now four times in my office. On making sure that he too has an "A-Team' as the contractor. And from my discussions with the people on the ground they say that Bechtel has also been doing their job in trying to get the right people there."

Cantwell also questioned Secretary Chu on whether the disposal of military waste could be prioritized over civilian waste and about the possibility of disposing Hanford waste at a Waste Isolation Plant Project (WIPP) facility in New Mexico: "Can I get your viewpoints on whether we can dispose of military waste first? What we don't want is for Hanford to become a de-facto site for 90 percent of [the nation's high-level nuclear waste] storage.

Chu responded: "Well first we're going to separate the civilian and nuclear waste issues. I think it would be prudent to treat it differently. And we are considering -- I'm not sure where in the status -- but the WIPP, firstit's for low-level radioactive waste so one would need to do some studies to make sure that would be safe for the high-level waste. So we need to do something along those lines."

On February 2, 2012, during an ENR hearing, Cantwell questioned the co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future about their final report's failure to deal with defense-related waste, about 90 percent of which is at Hanford. Click here to watch a video of Cantwell's exchange with the Blue Ribbon Commission co-chairs.The final report, released late January, addresses how best to manage the nation's nuclear waste. However, the report only focused on civilian nuclear waste from power plants and did not address what to do with defense-related waste.

Commission co-chairs, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and General Brent Scowcroft, and Commission member and former Senator Pete Domenici all testified at the February 2nd hearing. Both chairmen agreed that Hanford waste was a priority and had urged the Administration to launch an immediate review of how to address defense waste.

Cantwell also asked Secretary Chu for an update on the Tri-Cities Development Council's application for the transfer of 1,341 acres of surplus land from the Hanford Site to the surrounding community for private sector job growth. She said: "On the thousand acres we're trying to get shifted over from DOE as the clean-up goes on shifting over acreage to the local community there for energy parks in general. I think it's a proposal that is moving its way through but if we could follow-up on those. Thank you."

Cantwell and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), have written a letter to Secretary Chu in strong support of the land transfer, saying it would encourage business investment and economic growth in the region and signify a "shared commitment to helping the region transition to a thriving, post-cleanup economy." The land is adjacent to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Port of Benton Manufacturing Mall, and the Tri-Cities Research District, and lies in close proximity to other research and training facilities such as the Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) Center and Washington State University's Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory. This prime location, adjacent to Richland city limits, could be a substantial asset in attracting additional high technology industry and creating new high wage jobs in the region over the coming years.

A complete transcript of Senator Cantwell's exchange with Secretary Chu follows:

Senator Maria Cantwell: Thank you Mr. Chairman. Secretary Chu it's good to see you here this morning. Thank you for visiting the Hanford site and the vit plant specifically. Obviously you know that it is one of the most complex and largest contaminated sites in the world. And our concerns about making sure that we continue to get clean-up done in a timely fashion is of critical importance. Not just to the state of Washington but to the nation. Are you confident with this level of funding that we will have that plant open and operational in 2019?

The Honorable Steven Chu -- Secretary of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy:

Senator, again within the budget constraints we are essentially working hard to keep the environmental management budget flat, or down a fraction of a percent, .7 percent, but essentially flat. And we are trying very hard to make some tough decisions. There is the protection of the Columbia River, the tanks and Waste Treatment Plant (WTP). So first we feel we're going to meet the legal obligations for FY13 with this budget. But as you know, I spoke to you about this, that there was an ideal funding profile for the completion of the WTP plant, the vitrification plant that would call for more aggressive spending this year next year and the following years. So just like in a commercial building when you build a building you don't mess around. If you've got an engineer you build it you build it very quickly. That funding profile is not in the cards anymore because of our budgets. So because of that we know that there is a risk that could slip schedule. But on the flipside we are also having to prioritize and make sure that the waste tanks farms are cared for as well. It's a tough decision and as you well know we take these responsibilities very seriously.

Senator Maria Cantwell: So 2019, that's your --?

The Honorable Steven Chu -- Secretary of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy: Well we can't say right now because we are working through some of the issues. We have a program for testing, for example, the pulse jet mixing, things of that nature, that perhaps two or three years ago we felt that, we determined that with the defense board and others that it would be prudent to go through more comprehensive testing so we acknowledged that. These are some of the issues on this very very complex project. This is, in my mind, the most complex nuclear project the world has under-taken, let alone the United States.

Senator Maria Cantwell: I couldn't agree more. And that's why you know when some of the questions have been raised about the vit plant, do you think we have the right oversight on the issues that have been brought up by whistle-blowers? Because obviously once the plant goes operational you can't fix any, it's too hot to fix structural issues.

The Honorable Steven Chu -- Secretary of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy: I think we've worked very hard, both the deputy secretary and I have worked very hard to make sure that we have essentially our A-Team in place in the direct oversight of the contractors. Bechtel, Dale Knutson, is a truly outstanding project manager. He's had a long track record. We were able to talk him into doing this. We have a new head of the office of river protection, Scott Samuelson, we have a lot of researchers I have respect for. Dave Huizenga again, a superb manager person who is. So all the way up and down the chain we've put in place what we believe is a very good team.

And because of the importance of this project a lot of these discussions go right into my office. I've spoken to the CEO of the head contractor Bechtel, Riley Bechtel probably now four times in my office. On making sure that he too has an A-team as the contractor. And from my discussions with the people on the ground they say that Bechtel has also been doing their job in trying to get the right people there.

Senator Maria Cantwell: Thank you to that level of detail because I think that is what it takes. I've often said you should make the Energy Secretary for life or until Hanford is cleaned-up just so we don't continue to change horses in the stream. Can I get your viewpoints on whether we can dispose of military waste first? What we don't want is Hanford to become a de-facto site for 90 percent of the storage.

You know the commission was in here, the Blue Ribbon Commission, a few weeks ago. Senator Domenici basically threw out on the table, my colleague Senator Wyden got him talking about this, and I tried to follow up about whether the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico might be an ideal place for Hanford waste. So do you agree with him on that?

The Honorable Steven Chu -- Secretary of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy:

Well first we're going to keep separate the civilian and nuclear waste issues. I think it would be prudent to treat it differently. And we are considering, I'm not sure where in the status but the WIPP, first it's for low level radioactive waste so one would need to do some studies to make sure that would be safe for the high-level waste. So we need to do something along those lines. But I'm glad you pointed out WIPP because this is a success story. It's been there operating for about a dozen years and there have been no incidents. The local people feel confident that we are running this in a very safe way and it's good for the local economy. It's good for the economy of the state of New Mexico. So again this is something where we show that we can develop repositories for nuclear waste which have the acceptance of the local people.

Senator Maria Cantwell: Well if I could get a follow-up with you on the details of that I'd appreciate it. And also on the thousand acres we're trying to get shifted over from DOE as the clean-up goes on shifting over acreage to the local community there for energy parks in general. I think it's a proposal that is moving its way through but if we could follow-up on both of those thank you. Thank you Mr. Chairman.


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