Soaring Hanford costs raise new clean-up questions

If expenses continually go up, it becomes hard to see how the legal mandates to clean up the most dangerous wastes can ever be met, at least on time.

Crosscut archive image.

Part of the Hanford site where a glassification, or vitrification, plant is being constructed

If expenses continually go up, it becomes hard to see how the legal mandates to clean up the most dangerous wastes can ever be met, at least on time.

The U.S. Department of Energy last month said the the $12.3 billion price tag of the Hanford nuclear reservation's biggest project will likely increase by $900 million to about $13.2 billion. Even that estimate is likely to be significantly too low. The additional increases — hundreds of million to billions of dollars — are hidden in the fine print.

That's because several pieces of the project are being left out of the budget crunching.   

Hanford in southeastern Washington state 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 Department of Energy (DOE) and lead contractor Bechtel National are designing and building a complex to do that in central Hanford. But it a troubled effort, with a history of delays and cost increases.

Originally, the complex was supposed to start glassifying wastes in 1999. In 2002, its design and construction budget was $4 billion. DOE fired the original lead contractor, BNFL Inc., in 2002 when it said the price tag would be close $13 billion because of a complicated approach to financing the project.  Then the official cost went back down to $4 billion. DOE also exiled the head of its DOE Hanford glassification project to a backwater job in 2002 after he contended that $4 billion was not enough due to engineering and project management reasons. 

But the price tag of $4 billion in 2002 grew to $12.3 billion by early 2006 and stayed steady until November when $13.2 billion became the potential new figure. The original start-up date of 1999 was delayed to 2007, then to  2011, and now to 2019. The target to finish glassification has moved from 2028 to 2047.

Hanford is where the United States produced plutonium for atomic bombs from 1944 to 1987 in a vast complex of reactors and chemical processing plants. Plutonium production created at least 440 billion gallons of mildly contaminated fluids,  of which 53 million gallons of the most radioactive are stored in 177 huge underground tanks. Sixty-seven of those tanks are suspected of leaking at least 1 million gallons into the ground. Other measures are tackling the less dangerous fluids in the ground.

The new potential $800 million to $900 million cost increase comes from a DOE Construction Project Review report. DOE officials discussed it with Crosscut under the condition that they not be identified because of internal protocol reasons. Tom Carpenter, director of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog organization with a major focus on whistleblower matters, and Dan McDonald, tank waste disposal project manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, also discussed the report.

DOE has not yet officially agreed that the worst-case cost scenario in the report — compiled by a mix of internal DOE officials and outside experts — will likely unfold.

However, the report said: "It is increasingly unlikely that the project can be completed within the approved budget of $$12.26 billion."

The report, DOE officials, and Carpenter said the potential $900 million cost increase price can be traced to:

  • DOE and Bechtel expecting that all the tests of designs, chemical processes, and constructed segments will pass on the first tries with little or no backtracking to fix problems that the tests might show. The report said projects of similar size and complexity have had to do significant fix-it work following tests.
  • Congress is not expected to appropriate contingency money, for engineering and construction cost overruns, until later this decade. This is due to how Congress and DOE mapped out the the project annual budget several years ago.
  • The sizes of of the tiny plutonium particles going through the early stages of glassification could be significantly larger than originally predicted. The increased size of the plutonium particles will increase the risk of a "criticality" occurring. A criticality is an uncontrolled burst of radiation. This becomes important because the mixing tanks and pipes in this stage of the plant will likely have hydrogen gases catching fire and exploding within them. And critics have raised questions on how whether the designs of this part of the complex have been adequately proven that the tanks and pipes can withstand being broken by those explosions. The extent of this potential problem is still being studied.
  • Many engineering issues are still unsolved in the tanks where the wastes are mixed and separated prior to glassification. One concern is that danger exists of the pulse jets within those mixing tanks eroding holes in the one-inch-thick steel tanks. Other concerns — undergoing significant internal and external Hanford debates — revolve around whether the tanks will safely work as planned. The report noted that questions remain on what the mixed wastes' compositions should be prior to actual glassification. 

The potential risks from these problems, which some critics say could include Chernobyl-type radiation releases, are multiplied by the fact that the insides of these buildings will be so radioactive that even workers in protective gear won't be able to enter them. That means repairs and replacements will have to be done by remote control. 

Meanwhile, the new report of a maximum potential $13.2 billion estimate is deceiving. The price will likely grow some more. The biggest reason is the that $12 billion-to-$13 billion complex is not big enough to glassify all the radioactive wastes by the 2047 legal deadline that the Washington and DOE have agreed upon.

The glassification complex is divided into three sections. One is a facility — dubbed the "pretreatment facility" — to separate the tank wastes into "high-level radioactive wastes" and "low-activity radioactive wastes." Meanwhile, a second building will glassify high-level wastes and a third will glassify low-activity wastes.

The $12 billion-to-$13-billion price tag assumes only one low-activity waste facility will be built. One low-activity facility and one high-level facility can glassify almost all the wastes — but only 40 percent to 55 percent by the 2047 legal deadline. Consequently, glassification would finish many years after 2047.

To meet that legal deadline, another low-actiivy melter facility will have to be built, a measure that has not been budgeted for, DOE acknowledged.   

DOE has a legal deadline of April 30, 2015, to settle on a way to deal with that bottleneck of having only one low-activity waste melting facility

Its choices include:

  • Building another low-activity waste facility. The state prefers this option because it uses technology with a proven track record. A complex with two low-activity waste facilities would bump the price tag above $12 billion to $13 billion.
  • Bulk vitrification, which sticks disposable electrodes into containers of low-activity wastes to glassify them. Hanford has been studying this concept since 2003 with no decision made so far on whether to use it. This would also increase the cost estimate.
  • Steam reformation in which wastes and other chemicals would be put in a huge tube. The substances would be heated in the range of 1,500 degrees. That's supposed to destroy the organic materials, leaving steam, carbon dioxide and waste crystals. The crystals would then be buried at Hanford. Hanford has been studying this concept since 2002 with no decisions made so far on whether to use it. This would also increase the price.

The report noted other cost and scheduling problems. These include the low-activity-waste melters expected not being able to handle most of the highly-radioactive technetium 99 isotopes going through them — meaning something will have to be done with some leftover waste. Also 23 of the underground tanks have chemical properties that are significantly different from the 140 to 150 underground tanks. That raises questions whether they will need special preparations so the pretreatment plant can process them.

DOE has calculated that a "waste blending facility" will be needed to prepare wastes from the underground tanks for the pretreatment plant, with the caveat that future studies might conclude differently. No designs nor budgets for that possibility have been mapped out.

Hanford critics have fretted the cost of a possible waste-blending facility could be shuffled so it would not appear on the $12-13 billion glassification plant budget. That fear of financial shuffling comes from how Hanford and its budgets are organized.

DOE's Office of River Protection is in charge of : safely maintaining 53 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes in 177 underground tanks,dubbed the "tank farms"; and building and operating the waste glassification complex, dubbed either "the vit plant" (for vitrification) or the "WTP" (for waste treatment plant).

Two different contractors run the two operations. Congress appropriates money to DOE, and DOE allocates the money to Hanford's Office of River Protection in two separate chunks, one for the "tank farms" and one for the "vit plant." These funds are not supposed to mingle, nor transfer back and forth between each other.

The $12.3 billion-to-$13.2 billion figure is all in the vit plant budget with none going to the tank farms. Critics fear cost overruns will be shifted to the tank farms budget so they won't appear on the vit plant budget. 

"Now the costs are being put in tank farms budget  to hide cost overruns in the waste treatment plant," Hanford Challenge's Carpenter said.

In fact, last month's DOE Construction Review Project report suggested the possible $800 million to $900 million cost increase could be shrunk — on paper, but not in actual dollars — by up to $350 million by moving that amount out of the vit plant budget to the tank farms budget.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8