KENNEWICK - Past estimates of the money and time needed for the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation - some $50 billion over 30 years - are not realistic, a federal energy official said.
A University of Tennessee study last year put the cost at $300 billion, and that figure does not include the cost of disposing of hundreds of contaminated old buildings on the site, Assistant Energy Secretary Thomas Grumbly said.
"At the end of the line, we could find the costs could begin with the letter T," Grumbly said, referring to trillions of dollars.
Grumbly spoke yesterday at a conference on the future of Hanford, a former plutonium-production facility that is considered the nation's most contaminated nuclear site.
The conference drew hundreds of representatives from environmental companies, regulators and government.
Hanford is in the fourth year of the scheduled 30-year cleanup, but Grumbly said there is no guarantee the work will be finished by the current 2018 deadline.
"People should not get fixated on 2018 as the end of the environmental program," Grumbly said, echoing recent comments by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.
At the same time, steady progress is required if the federal government is to continue financing the work, he said.
The Clinton administration has about $230 billion in annual discretionary spending, and has committed $6.5 billion of that to cleaning up the nation's nuclear-weapons complex, Grumbly said.
Hanford is one of the biggest environmental-cleanup projects in the world, he said.
Its wastes include 61 million gallons of highly toxic radioactive material stored in 177 underground tanks.
Also, the soil of the 560-square-mile site has been contaminated with more than 400 billion gallons of wastewater since the reservation was created to provide fuel for the Manhattan Project in World War II.
The Energy Department now is dealing with the shortcomings of past inattention to nuclear-waste and worker-safety issues, Hanford Manager John Wagoner said.
"In many cases there are no adequate technical solutions," Wagoner said.
But research to find solutions has the potential to create a whole new economy for the Tri-Cities based on environmental cleanup, Wagoner and other speakers said.
With one in four workers in the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco working at Hanford, the site's future is a major concern here.
Among the points made by other speakers:
-- William Wiley, head of the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, a federal research facility operated by Battelle Memorial Institute at Hanford, said he estimated Hanford cleanup costs at more than $250 billion, assuming few improvements in existing technology.
-- Benton County Commissioner Ray Isaacson, a longtime Hanford worker, said it is unrealistic to expect that another state would be willing to accept any waste shipments from Hanford. The cleanup envisions sending encapsulated Hanford wastes to another state for final burial.
"If we dig it up and put it in another hole, we haven't changed anything at all," he said.