RICHLAND, Wash. – On Tuesday Senator Ron Wyden is on a fact-finding mission at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington. The Oregon Democrat chairs a key committee that shares jurisdiction over a $12 billion waste treatment plant being built at Hanford. Soon, the main contractor on that project might face hefty fines.
The punishment stems from an investigation of the troubled plant by the U.S. Department of Energy. The findings in that report are startling.
At Hanford, there’s a slow grinding conversation in paper going back and forth, back and forth. In scientific-speak and legalese these reports have slapped down between government agencies, contractors and watchdogs. Lately, that conversation has been getting terser.
And it’s raising major questions about the waste treatment plant, says Tom Carpenter. He’s the head of the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge.
“How bad is it? Is this plant really salvageable at this point? If so what do we need to do to fix it, what will it cost, how long will it take?” Carpenter asks.
This report was circulated and leaked in November -- but here, we’re taking a closer look at what it says. The document was drafted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s investigative and enforcement arm. Even its name is a mouthful: The Office of Health, Safety and Security’s Office of Enforcement and Oversight.
The report is a pretty dry read – but if you look close, it includes some serious concerns.
First, just a tiny bit of history. This waste treatment, aka vitrification plant, is a 65-acre complex. It looks like downtown high-rises smashed together with a major-league stadium. The massive factory is supposed to treat 56 million gallons of radioactive goo.
Yes, goo. And a lot of it is the consistency of peanut butter. But this spread isn’t going on a sandwich. No, it’s so hot with radioactivity that humans can’t even get close to it. All that goo is simmering away in WWII and Cold War-era underground tanks.
Recently, one of the newer-and-stronger of those tanks sprung an internal leak. That’s why building this waste treatment plant is so urgent. And all that waste is not far from the Columbia River.
The report says one major problem is with the main government contractor on the project, Bechtel. The report says the company hasn’t kept pace with the changes in its project’s design. That means the design doesn’t necessarily match what’s happening on the ground.
Here’s an example: The report says a pipe part was fabricated and installed – later it was found to be the wrong size. That matters because this plant is a high-hazard, first-of-a-kind facility that’s handling some of the most dangerous materials on earth.
Donna Busche, is the manager of environmental and nuclear safety for URS. That’s another top contractor on the waste treatment plant project. This month she filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Bechtel and her own company. She’s especially concerned about the plant’s complicated pre-treatment facility.
“I think there are serious issues with the quality, throughout the design and fabrication of that plant," Busche says. "When you have quality indeterminate and safety indeterminate, in the nuclear business, those must be addressed – with unwavering commitment to do the right thing. So I do not believe we have a safety basis for the pretreatment facility.”
Here’s another possible problem with the Hanford waste treatment plant. And it’s one that’s familiar in the Northwest: Ashfall.
Think Mount St. Helens -- 1980. If a similar event were to happen when the waste treatment plant was running it could be a disaster. The report says workers would have to scramble to change about 7,000 filters in less than 24 hours.
They’re not just any filters, they’re intended to strain out radioactive contamination and hazardous chemicals so they don’t harm anyone.
“This vitrification plant is really going to have to rely on those filters to make sure that radioactive materials don’t escape into the environment and potentially expose workers and the public,” explains Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar for nuclear and energy policies for a think-tank called Institute for Policy Studies.
There’s a lot more to this report, but to tackle one more point, the tank waste at Hanford can produce flammable hydrogen gas. Hydrogen is prone to spontaneous explosion if too much gets trapped one area. That could happen if a waste pipe gets plugged.
The report says Bechtel hasn’t really worked out how key ventilation systems would best be designed, even though problems with those systems have been apparent since 2007. The danger is that in a steam or hydrogen accident, particulate, embers, heated air or soot could compromise the plant’s filters. And if one filter went down, others could follow like dominos.
The bottom line is that the report might result in large fines or penalties for the prime contractor Bechtel. And nuclear expert Robert Alvarez says failure to earnestly tackle these problems soon could mean a very expensive shipwreck in the crackling southeast Washington desert.
“I’m not prepared to say that it’s sort of reached the end of its rope," he says. "I think there is some hope that some of this can be salvaged, but I tend to think that we need to start to look at alternative methods of processing these wastes.”
Something Alvarez said over and over again: Designing and building Hanford’s waste treatment plant is as complicated as sending men to the moon. And lots of smart people are working on it.
We contacted the Department of Energy, Bechtel and Washington’s Department of Ecology for comment. They all are waiting for the final report to come out before making any statements.