It seems more and more likely that Hanford will remain the nation's largest nuclear waste dump until the plutonium waste produced during World War Two and the Cold War loses all its radioactivity or hell freezes over, whichever comes first. The plutonium will take about 240,000 years. (It will lose half its radioactivity in a mere 24,000.) Hell is somewhat less certain. Take your choice.
Hanford was, of course, the site of the world's first plutonium factory. Starting in 1944, its reactors churned out Pu-239 for the bomb that exploded at the Trinity test site and the bomb that exploded over Nagasaki. It produced all the Pu-239 for all the bombs in the country's nuclear arsenal into the 1950s, and kept producing it until 1989. Low-level waste produced in the early years was dumped into trenches. High-level waste was dumped into single-walled steel tanks. By the time plutonium production shut down, Hanford had become the most highly contaminated nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.
In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Ecology (then headed by Chris Gregoire) signed a Tri Party Agreement under which the Energy Department would meet various guidelines for getting the waste out of the by-then leaky steel tanks, and generally cleaning up the site.
Under that agreement and a consent decree signed in 2010, the federal government is building the world's largest vitrification plant, designed to encase the most highly radioactive waste in borosilicate glass. The plant (technically the Hanford Site Waste Treatment and Mobilization Plant) has already more than doubled its original budget and fallen at least eight years behind its original schedule. It was originally supposed to start full production of glass logs sometime last year. Now the plant is supposed to be up and running by 2019. The last of the old single-walled tanks is supposed to be emptied by 2040. All the waste is supposed to be treated by 2047.
How plausible are these dates? Not very. The vit plant has been designed to produce glass logs for long-term storage at the Yucca Mountain waste repository, which may — and probably will — never be built. Some people doubt that the vit plant itself will ever work, or at least work long enough to process much of the waste. If a weld fails in one of the plant's "black cells," it may not be reparable. Once radiation builds up in the cells, no one expects human beings to go inside. Each cell will contain some 3900 linear feet of piping designed to last without maintenance for 40 years, the full period over which the plant is expected to process nuclear waste. What are the chances that a weld will fail? It turns out that nobody knows.
That is the takeaway from the Department of Energy Inspector General's draft vit plant audit, released in a dark corner of the news cycle on Friday afternoon, January 13. The construction contractor, Bechtel, allegedly hasn't had enough on-site inspectors qualified to interpret tests of nuclear-quality welds. So welds have gone into the black boxes without having been thoroughly vetted.
As a comment to the Tri-City Herald's report on the audit points out, Bechtel has been building nuclear plants for decades; that it should lack people who are certified to check nuclear welds is simply bizarre.
Of course, the audit is only a draft. Bechtel will have a chance to comment. Who knows what the final version will say?
Whatever it says, the audit hardly represents the only recent bit of bad news about construction of the vit plant, or progress toward the larger goal of getting highly radioactive wastes out of leaky tanks and ultimately out of Washington.
Take the project's culture of safety — or lack thereof: Over the past couple of years, two whistleblowers have claimed that Bechtel's culture discourages people from speaking up when they see that design or construction isn't safe. Now, the Department of Energy's own investigators have suggested more or less the same thing.
The department's Office of Enforcement and Oversight, which is part of its Office of Health, Safety and Security, has found "a definite unwillingness and uncertainty among employees about the ability to openly challenge management decisions. There are definite perceptions that there is not an environment conducive to raising concerns or where management wants or willingly listens to concerns. Most employees also believe that constructive criticism is not encouraged."
And then, of course, there's Yucca Mountain. In 1980, the federal government decided on deep geological disposal of waste from Hanford and the nation's civilian nuclear plants. Later in the decade, it started culling possible sites in 36 states, as a step toward creating two depositories, in separate regions. States in the East and Midwest objected.
In 1986, the feds narrowed the search to Washington, Texas, and Nevada — and to a single site. Nevada was the lucky winner. Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987 called for studying and licensing a site at Yucca Mountain. In 2002, the Secretary of Energy finally recommended Yucca Mountain. President George W. Bush accepted the recommendation, Nevada's governor vetoed the choice, and Congress overrode his veto. Yucca Mountain it was.
Or not. Of course, people in Nevada didn't want it. Campaigning in Nevada, Barack Obama said that if he were elected, he'd kill the Yucca project, and his administration has tried to do just that. Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid — now Senate Majority Leader — has applauded the administration's efforts. As well he might; the administration has done its best to make good on that campaign promise.
"The Obama Administration, in conjunction with DOE, has taken three important steps directed toward terminating the Yucca Mountain project," Todd Garvey wrote in a Congressional Research Service report last year. "First, the Administration’s FY2011 budget proposal eliminated all funding for the Yucca Mountain project. Second, the President and Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, established a Blue Ribbon Commission to consider alternative solutions to the nation’s nuclear waste challenge. Third, and most controversial, DOE has attempted to terminate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding by seeking to withdraw the license application for the Yucca Mountain facility."
The icing on the cake: The DOE has tried to withdraw the license application with prejudice, which means it couldn't be re-submitted at a later date.
Meanwhile, State Attorney General Rob McKenna and other Washington officials have been fighting to keep the federal government from abandoning the Yucca project, as have state and county officials from South Carolina, which has its own radioactive leftovers from years of plutonium production at Savannah River.
Two years ago, the state intervened before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which denied the DOE's motion to withdraw. The dismantling of Yucca continued, though. The DOE appealed to the NRC. Washington and South Carolina sued in the D.C. Circuit Court to keep the DOE from terminating the Yucca site. The court found that the issue was premature, because the NRC hadn't acted yet.
Washington then asked for a mandate forcing the NRC to decide, and to consider the DOE's application on its merits.
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