Powerful congressman demands Hanford answers

Rep. Ed Markey wants to know whether one facility is needed. And he cites nuclear safety issues and cost concerns around unresolved technical questions to request a halt in some work.
Crosscut archive image.

Work on Hanford's glassification plant (2010)

Rep. Ed Markey wants to know whether one facility is needed. And he cites nuclear safety issues and cost concerns around unresolved technical questions to request a halt in some work.

Why build a huge, expensive chemical facility at Hanford, if the site can begin glassifying radioactive wastes without it?

That's one question posed by U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to the U.S. Department of Energy after former Gov. Chris Gregoire and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently agreed to ramp up stalled work on a $13 billion waste glassification complex while looking at bypassing the "pretreatment" portion of the plant.

Last Friday, Markey wrote to Chu: "I am ... alarmed by the recent announcement that (DOE) might attempt to simply bypass the most problematic so-called 'pretreatment facility' entirely, and instead feed waste directly to the high and low-level waste treatment facilities without first separating the types of wastes."

Markey also suggested "in the strongest possible terms" that work should be stopped on the glassification complex pending resolution of design questions. His letter cited a federal General Accounting Office report, also released Friday, that recommended that work most of the glassification complex — including the pretreatment facility — be stopped until numerous design problems are fixed. The GAO's worries are the same as voiced by another federal oversight body, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

DOE officials weren't able to provide answers Monday on the technical feasibility of bypassing pretreatment.

Friday's GAO report echoed stop-work recommendations in a Dec. 19, 2012, memo by Gary Brunson, who used to be DOE's engineering division director for the glassification complex. He resigned earlier this month, just before Gregoire and Chu made their announcement.

And Brunson's memo, also cited by Markey, highlighted the same design shortcomings that at least three ranking Hanford supervisors raised about the project — with all three alleging they suffered retaliation for pushing those concerns. Markey's letter said he is interested in the retaliation allegations.

The GAO report said, "DOE's (waste treatment) project has not been a well-planned, well-managed, or well-executed major capital construction project."

DOE is working to comply with the GAO's recommendations, said a Nov. 30, 2012 DOE letter replying to a draft of the GAO report. The DOE letter was sent almost three week prior to Brunson's memo to stop work and about six weeks prior to Chu and Gregoire announcing the restart.

"Since mid-July, (Chu) has been actively engaged in the development of a new approach to managing the (glassification project), and has been working with a personally handpicked group of independent, highly capable subject matter experts ... to resolve long-standing technical issues," DOE's letter said.

DOE's letter later said: "We also acknowledge the existence of a cultural challenge on the (waste treatment) project wherein employees were reluctant to raise safety concerns because of an overriding perception that would not be addressed in an aggressive and timely manner. We are working ... to change and improve the safety culture at (the project)."

Hanford is arguably the most radioactive and chemically contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere. Its worst problem is the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste currently stored in 177 leak-prone underground tanks. Hanford's master plan is to build a complex to convert a major portion of the sludges and fluids into benign glass to be stored at a yet-to-be-determined location.

These fluids will be sent to one of two Hanford glassification plants. One would glassify highly radioactive wastes, while the other would glassify wastes with lower radioactivity. Glassification will be done by mixing wastes and glass flakes in extremely hot melters.

One tricky part of this entire process is the fact the 53 million gallons of wastes are mish-mashes of numerous chemical sludges, crusts and gunk that vary from tank to tank. The high-level and low-level waste-treatment plants will only be able to glassify wastes that meet specific chemical and physical conditions entering into each.

The "pretreatment facility" is a building full of pipes, mixing tanks and air jets that will convert the tank wastes into substances that the two glassification plants will accept. It has been plagued with numerous engineering design problems and controversies, which Crosscut has covered extensively.

Unresolved questions include whether radioactive wastes will corrode tanks inside the pretreatment facility, whether radioactive leaks or spraying mists will occur within that building, whether uncontrolled bursts of radiation will occur, whether hydrogen gases could cause flames or explosions that could damage pipes and tanks and whether Hanford project managers and scientists understand the waste's chemistry enough to make sure equipment is up to snuff.

Another tricky part of this problem is that when the three buildings — the pretreatment and two glassification facilities — begin operating, most of their interiors will be too radioactive for people to safely enter. That means any repair work will have to be done by remote control. The facilities will have to work through at least 2047.

The sluggish construction of glassification complex — whose budget has grown from $4 billion to $13.4 billion in the last 13 years, while the start-up date has moved from 2001 to 2019 — slowed down further in 2012 while Hanford regrouped to deal with its design problems.

Shortly before Gregoire left the governor's office, she and Chu agreed to crank up construction to the high-level radioactive glassification plant and send some wastes directly to it to be able to meet the 2019 start-up deadline, while holding off on construction of the pretreatment facility until the engineering bugs are worked out.

A long-running criticism of the project has been that it is being designed and built simultaneously in order to meet the 2019 deadline. Friday's GAO report said the design work is about 80 percent complete, while construction is about 55 percent finished. It said the nuclear industry standard is to have the designs 90 percent done prior to construction.

Markey's letter cited a June 2012 GAO report that DOE was looking at preparing said a construction budget that would not include the pretreatment and high-level facility costs. "How can Congress have confidence in such a baseline if the facilities that pose the highest risk to cost and schedule are simply ignored?" Markey wrote.

The GAO report recommended that:

  • Construction on the pretreatment and high-level waste glassification plants not restart "until critical waste facilities are tested and verified as effective, the facilities' design has been completed to the level established by nuclear industry guidelines, and [lead contractor Bechtel National's] preliminary documented safety analyses comply with DOE nuclear safety regulations." Safety analyses have been a prime target for criticism by the supervisors alleging retaliation.
  • Withhold contractors' pay until they can resolve the technical issues required by their contracts.
  • DOE should retrieve $15 million already paid to Bechtel for obtaining mixing tanks in cases where it was later found that neither DOE nor Bechtel have the quality control records to prove they meet the proper specifications. Markey also is interested in that matter.

In its Nov. 30 letter, DOE wrote it is trying to improve how it manages its contracts, and it is re-evaluating its fee arrangements with Bechtel.


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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