Serious cracks are appearing in Hanford's ability to meet its 2019 deadline to begin glassifying the site's most deadly wastes. Unresolved technical issues in a radioactive-waste-glassification plant could force Hanford to reorganize its schedule and budget to build the complex — meaning the start-up date could be delayed.
It's the kind of problem that has occurred repeatedly in the efforts to address the daunting challenges of cleaning up the environment around the nuclear reservation that has been a center of production since the first atomic weapons were created.
Hanford in southeastern Washington is arguably the most radiologically and chemically contaminated spot in the Western Hemisphere. Hanford's biggest clean-up project is to convert 53 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge in 177 underground tanks to a benign glass, to be stored for 10,000 years somewhere that is still undecided.
The federal Department of Energy and lead contractor Bechtel National are designing and building a complex to put the wastes into glass form in central Hanford. But it is a troubled effort, with a long history of delays and cost increases.
The most troubled part of the complex is a facility, dubbed the "pretreatment plant," that will take numerous types of radioactive liquids and sludges through 38 mixing tanks to prepare the material for glassification.
The unresolved technical issues include whether the wastes will erode or corrode the tanks; whether hydrogen gases could cause flames or explosions that will damage the tanks and pipes; whether uncontrolled bursts of radiation will occur; whether the pipes could clog up with radioactive sludge; and what the chemical compositions of the various types of radioactive wastes will be.
The importance of addressing these questions in advance is heightened by the fact that the interior of the pretreatment building will be highly radioactive and people will not be able to go inside most of the facility. Therefore, repairs will be extremely difficult and will have to be done by remote control.
Susan Leckband, chair of the Hanford Advisory Board — a 32-member body representing the entire Hanford political spectrum in the Northwest, including state agencies, environmentalist, tribes, and Tri-Cities interests — said recently that the unresolved technical issues will likely lead to reorganizing the glassification complex's schedules and budgets.
She said that whenever Hanford has done a revamp of this size in the past, the Department of Energy usually seeks changes in its legal deadline and overall budget for Hanford, a legal arrangement that is enforced by Washington's Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That revamping will also be prompted by the Obama administration asking Congress for $200 million less than needed for fiscal 2013 to keep Hanford's tank wastes project on schedule, Leckband said.
Legally, glassification, also called "vitrification," is supposed to begin in 2019. All the tank wastes are supposed to be dealt with by 2047, according to the legal contract dubbed the "Tri-Party Agreement."
DOE does not know yet whether it will have to seek a delay in the project's Tri-Party Agreement deadlines, including the 2019 start-up date, said Scott Samuelson, manager of DOE's Office of River Protection, which is the federal sub-agency in charge of the glassification project. DOE has told Bechtel to study the timetable matter, especially under the current budget situation, with a report due in August.
Samuelson and Leckband both spoke at a heavily attended March 22 meeting in Kennewick of the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to discuss those unresolved technical and safety issues at the pretreatment plant. The federal defense board, based in D.C., keeps tabs on and advises on technical issues on the cleanup of nuclear sites for the Department of Energy. The board has some — but not total— regulatory clout in watchdogging the Department of Energy, which sometimes creates tensions between the two federal agencies.
The defense board got involved in the issues in 2010 after being contacted by Hanford whistleblower Walt Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis is a veteran Hanford URS Corp. engineering team leader who used to be in charge of making sure the 38 mixing tanks in the pretreatment plant would work as planned. The deadline to fix those design problems was June 30, 2010. DOE was supposed to pay Bechtel and its lead subcontractor URS Corp. $5 million for meeting that deadline. At that time, DOE, Bechtel and URS agreed that the deadline was met, justifying the $5 million payment.
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