Hanford: Can't anybody here clean up a mess?

After decades of pollution, the feds face a deadline in 2019. Seven years might sound like a lot of time but expectations of a federal request for a delay are already rising.

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Part of the cleanup at Hanford

After decades of pollution, the feds face a deadline in 2019. Seven years might sound like a lot of time but expectations of a federal request for a delay are already rising.

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.

But in the months leading up to the deadline, Tamosaitis argued that the engineering problems — pertaining to air jets, radiation bursts, flammable gases, and effectively and efficiently mixing the sludges and liquids  — within the mixing tanks were not adequately addressed. He still contends they have not been fixed.

And on July 2, 2010, without warning, URS transferred Tamosaitis to a minor procurement job. Tamosaitis has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Bechtel and URS, alleging that he was transferred because he was raising legitimate concerns the contractors ignored to meet the June 30, 2010 deadline. DOE and Bechtel say he was routinely transferred because his team's work was done.

Currently, DOE has earmarked $200 million for follow-up tests on half-sized and full-size lab equipment to see if the mixing tank designs approved on June 30, 2010 will work with the actual wastes.

At the March meeting, Tamosaitis questioned why $200 million is needed to to see if the mixing tank designs will work, since those designs were already approved in 2010. 

Samuelson said the design work approved on June 30, 2010 was to determine a "path forward" with the upcoming tests to see if those designs will work and how they would be implemented. "I think it was confusing," said David Huizenga, DOE's senior advisor for environmental management. He said the mixing tank design issues were closed properly on in 2010 if closure "was defined very narrowly."

"It was a difficult thing to try to communicate," said Dale Knutson, DOE's director for the glassification complex project.

The project's "design-as-you-build" approach to creating the $13 billion complex could haunt the site with hard-to-fix troubles a few years from now, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has argued. This increases the likelihood that vital equipment will be installed before tests are done to ensure safe and efficient functioning.

Peter Winokur, the board's chairman, said during the meeting: "What concerns the board are the (DOE's) decisions to continue design and construction of the plant when there are so many unresolved technical issues that can impact  not only the safety-related controls needed to protect the public and the workers, but also the reliability and capability of a plant that must operate safely for decades. ... A learn-as-we go operating philosophy is not prudent or safe for this facility."

"The (glassification plant) must be built. ... But you cannot retrofit it after it is built, especially after it goes hot," said Shelly Doss, a recently laid-off Hanford worker with 23 years experience with the tank waste programs.

Defense board staff member Steven Stokes said the staff is concerned about wear-and-tear calculations for the pretreatment plant's tanks, pipes, and the air jets that will move and mix the wastes. Other unresolved staff concerns include radioactive solids piling up in the bottoms of the mixing tanks to increase the risk of radiation bursts, flammable hydrogen gas collecting within the mixing tanks, and an accumulation of sludges that might interfere with the sensors used by the mixing systems' controls.

Stokes also said Hanford frequently used literature studies in the place of lab tests to determine wear-and-tear on the tanks and pipes — leading to uncertainty in those calculations. He also said Hanford  has a poor understanding of the wastes' convoluted chemistry. And six tanks within the pretreatment plant and four tanks in two glassification buildngs have been designed to operate above the temperatures that could cause corrosion, Stokes said. Bechtel said it will study that issue.

Stokes said today's safety concerns could lead to difficult and expensive fix-it measures. "As such, there is potentially much greater reluctance to make changes now than it would have been earlier," Stokes said.

Some of these mixing tank issues surfaced in 2001. The state ecology department voiced a need for erosion testing for the mixing tanks in 2004.

"Nobody from Bechtel and DOE can guarantee it will work," whistleblower Tamosaitis said. He called the situation troubling, adding, "We can't define what (the pretreatment plant) will process. ... How can we design a chemical plant without knowing what chemicals it will process?"

DOE and Bechtel officials acknowledge the mixing tank issues still need to be addressed and promise that all of the concerns will be tackled. "It'll take a long time to drive these issues to closure," the DOE's Knutson said.

"Before we bring wastes into the facility, we have to have all these problems resolved," said Frank Russo, Bechtel's director for the glassification project.

The current glassification plant's price tag is roughly $13 billion, compared to an estimate of $4 billion in 2001. That $13 billion does not include dealing with an unknown percentage of the 53 million gallons of tank wastes that won't go through the glassification plant, and the estimate does not include the possibility that a yet-to-be-designed facility might be needed to prepare wastes for the pretreatment plant.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8