(The Center Square) – The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a 10-year contract worth up to $45 billion to a Virginia-based consortium for environmental cleanup and treatment of millions of gallons of toxic wastes stored in tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

DOE’s Office of Environmental Management announced the award Thursday with Hanford Tank Waste Operations and Closure LLC, also called H2C. It is a newly formed company comprised of a trio of firms – BWXT Technical Services Group Inc., Amentum Environment and Energy Inc., and Fluor Federal Services Inc. – which have been involved in ongoing cleanup work.

The Hanford site has between 150 and 175 underground storage tanks holding an estimated 56 million gallons of radioactive and toxic chemical waste in liquid, sludge, and crystallized forms. Many of the aging tanks are single-wall construction susceptible to leakage. Efforts have been underway to transfer the contaminants to double-walled tanks pending further treatment, including processing in a new “vitrification” facility that is slated for operation in 2025 after more than 20 years of construction.

The federal contract requires H2C and its partners to operate tank farm facilities, including waste retrieval and closure of the single-shell tanks; to design, construct and operate the waste receiving facilities; and to operate the “Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant.” The Vit Plant, being constructed by Bechtel National Inc., is designed to use extreme heat to vitrify, or convert, much of the waste into a glasslike, noncontaminating material for permanent disposal.

The Hanford site encompasses 580 square miles, straddling the Columbia River east of the Tri-Cities in Benton, Franklin, and Grant counties. Decades of nuclear weapons production since World War II plus government-sponsored nuclear energy research have left the site with large amounts of radioactive wastes, spent nuclear fuel, excess plutonium and uranium, and contaminated facilities, soil, and groundwater.

Cleanup activities began in 1989 when DOE entered into the Tri-Party Agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Washington state’s Department of Ecology. DOE manages Hanford and hires contractors to do cleanup work, which is overseen by the EPA and Ecology to ensure compliance with laws and regulations to protect human health and air, land, and water resources.

The federal pact with H2C is described as an “Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity” contract with a maximum value of $45 billion over a 10-year period. According to the U.S. General Services Administration, an IDIQ helps streamline the contract process and speed service delivery when the administration can’t determine above a specified minimum the precise quantities of supplies or services that the government will require.

Along with its core responsibilities, the contract requires H2C to provide “meaningful work to be performed by small businesses” and to submit a “community commitment plan” to DOE that includes “support to site reindustrialization by the local community.”

DOE initially awarded the contract to H2C last April, but it was set aside after being challenged in a federal claims court by a losing bidder, Hanford Tank Disposition Alliance. DOE then sought renewed proposals and H2C was again selected. The company will assume operations from Washington River Protection Solutions, led by Amentum, a company that is also part of the Hanford Tank Disposition Alliance.

Currently, more than 2,500 workers are involved in tank farm operations at Hanford, but no workforce impacts are expected as a result of the contract change, according to DOE.

Last September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on Hanford operations, saying that cleanup of the entire site is expected to take decades and cost between $300 billion and $640 billion. But the agency said DOE and Congress have had opportunities to save money and reduce risks at Hanford through “alternative approaches.”

Rather than vitrification, for example, the GAO recommended immobilizing “low activity waste” that comprises about 95% of Hanford’s tank waste volume in a cement-like mixture called grout – similar to DOE’s treatment of salt waste at a site in South Carolina.

“Legislation clarifying DOE’s authority to do so could help DOE reduce risks posed by leaking tanks, expedite treatment, and save billions of dollars,” stated the GAO while acknowledging that “alternative treatment and disposal options” could face legal uncertainty and potential litigation.