By Peter Eisler
Seven decades after scientists came here during World War II to create plutonium for the first atomic bomb, a new generation is struggling with an even more daunting task: cleaning up the radioactive mess. The U.S. government is building a treatment plant to stabilize and contain 56 million gallons of waste left from a half-century of nuclear weapons production.
The radioactive sludge is so dangerous that a few hours of exposure could be fatal. A major leak could contaminate water supplies serving millions across the Northwest. The cleanup is the most complex and costly environmental restoration ever attempted. And the project is not going well.
A USA TODAY investigation has found that the troubled, 10-year effort to build the treatment plant faces enormous problems just as it reaches what was supposed to be its final stage.
In exclusive interviews, several senior engineers cited design problems that could bring the plant’s operations to a halt before much of the waste is treated. Their reports have spurred new technical reviews and raised official concerns about the risk of a hydrogen explosion or uncontrolled nuclear reaction inside the plant. Either could damage critical equipment, shut the facility down or, worst case, allow radiation to escape.
The plant’s $12.3 billion price tag, already triple original estimates, is well short of what it will cost to address the problems and finish the project. And the plant’s start-up date, originally slated for last year and pushed back to its current target of 2019, is likely to slip further. “We’re continuing with a failed design,” said Donald Alexander, a senior U.S. government scientist on the project.
“There’s a lot of pressure … from Congress, from the state, from the community to make progress,” he added. As a result, “the design processes are cut short, the safety analyses are cut short, and the oversight is cut short. … We have to stop now and figure out how to do this right, before we move any further.”
Documents obtained by USA TODAY show at least three federal investigations are underway to examine the project, which is funded and supervised by the Department of Energy, owner of Hanford Site. Bechtel National is the prime contractor.
In November, the Energy Department’s independent oversight office notified Bechtel that it is investigating “potential nuclear safety non-compliances” in the design and installation of plant systems and components. And the department’s inspector general is in the final stages of a separate probe focused on whether Bechtel installed critical equipment that didn’t meet quality-control standards.
Meanwhile, Congress’ Government Accountability Office has launched a sweeping review of everything from cost and schedule overruns to the risks associated with the Energy Department’s decision to proceed with construction before completing and verifying the design of key components.
The “design-build” approach “is good if you’re building a McDonald’s,” said Gene Aloise, the GAO’s director of nuclear non-proliferation and security. “It’s not good if you’re building a one-of-a-kind, high-risk nuclear waste facility.”
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent federal panel that oversees public health and safety at nuclear weapons sites, is urging Energy Secretary Steven Chu to require more extensive testing of designs for some of the plant’s most critical components.
“Design and construction of the project continue despite there being unresolved technical issues, and there is a lot of risk associated with that,” said Peter Winokur, the board’s chairman. The waste at Hanford, stored in 177 deteriorating underground tanks, “is a real risk to the public and the environment. It is essential that this plant work and work well.”
Energy Department officials acknowledged that the design questions are a significant challenge and likely to inflate the project’s cost and timetable.
“We’ve got tough technical issues to deal with,” said David Huizenga, acting assistant Energy secretary for environmental management. “Each one of these issues that gets raised, we take it on and we work it until we’ve solved it. It might take a little longer than we’d hoped and cost a little more … (but) we will not operate a plant that cannot be operated safely.”