Memo to the new energy czar: We need a new approach to nuclear waste

In the last year the plan for Hanford has been thrown into turmoil, reflecting concerns about cost, schedules and the viability of planned technologies. Just last week the Department of Energy notified the State of Washington that it would miss two key deadlines for the cleanup. We must reexamine our approach before we face a true crisis.
 
Dr. Moniz should pose one essential question to his department: What immediate changes would we adopt if a breached tank suddenly began pouring millions of gallons of toxic nuclear waste into the Columbia River? I say cut the red tape.
 
The same unique and urgent challenge that created Hanford offers the model for an effective cleanup. Lieutenant General Leslie Groves who directed the Manhattan Project was given the freedom to operate without the procurement and regulation constraints of the day.
 
Such a bold plan is required now. Dr. Moniz should appoint an independent commission of state, federal and industry representatives charged with developing a new contracting model managed by an independent panel. While the Energy Department would retain control of Hanford’s operations, the panel would be charged with clearing the barriers to new technologies.
 
Just as the world’s top scientists joined the Manhattan Project to bring an end to World War II, Dr. Moniz must offer a fresh approach that gathers the nation’s best scientists and resources to meet this challenge. It won’t be easy. Two decades ago, I helped design Hanford’s initial cleanup plans. Then, we knew little about the composition of each storage tank and how different materials might interact.  We recognized that the cleanup process would require decades and the development of new technologies to safely store and treat the waste.
 
These new technologies have been slow to emerge, a process complicated by a dense web of regulations and processes.
 
Here’s the intricate process for any new technology. A company must navigate the universal contracting model in place throughout the DOE. That model must meet the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and the Department of Energy Acquisition Regulation, or DEAR, as well as myriad overlapping statutes, rules and regulations. Plus, any cleanup plans must conform to court rulings that call for specific technical solutions and discrete milestones.
 
Secretary Moniz must simplify this process. He must deliver a host of options to solve Hanford’s challenges. Over the last 23 years, this now-outdated approach has proven too complex to attract innovation and private investment.
 
The 500-square-mile waste mine that is Hanford holds the potential to serve as an incubator for generating new technologies to stabilize waste and protect the environment. These innovations could apply to industrial spills, electronic waste and future environmental challenges.
 
The energy secretary can – and should – unleash the country’s entrepreneurial spirit and put Hanford on a sound path by creating a contracting model that attracts solutions to Hanford’s challenges. God help us if we don’t.
 
Ralph DiSibio is executive chairman and CEO of Kurion, a nuclear-waste technology company based in Irvine, Calif., that assisted in Japan’s nuclear crisis at Fukushima and is developing technology to treat waste at Hanford.