Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2006
RICHLAND, Wash. — On a desert plateau seven miles from the Columbia River, a massive federal project to clean up a Cold War-era nuclear weapons plant is deeply troubled.
The effort to avoid an environmental calamity here, at the most polluted site in North America, is a priority of the Energy Department but has foundered because of engineering mistakes and runaway costs. Fifty-three million gallons of radioactive sludge, most of it the texture of ketchup, is stored in scores of underground tanks, some of which have leaked for years.
The Energy Department and contractor Bechtel Corp. are trying to build a sophisticated waste treatment complex — a small-scale industrial city — that would transform the sludge into radioactive glass. After spending $4 billion since 1989 and getting rid of three previous contractors, the program has yet to transform a gallon of sludge.
“We have had some world-class technical issues,” acknowledged John Eschenberg, the federal manager for construction. “I have made mistakes. Bechtel has made mistakes. If I could relive the last three years, there are things I would do differently.”
The project is a long-distance race to empty the leaky tanks and secure the radioactive waste before it becomes a greater menace to the Columbia River. The job is likely to take decades, and the price tag could approach $100 billion.
In January, the Energy Department stopped construction on the two most important parts of the project after it realized it had miscalculated the earthquake risks at the sprawling federal facility, known as the Hanford Site. In recent weeks, it put off any resumption of construction until after October 2007. At best, the plant would be finished in 2019.
What remains uncertain is whether the plant’s remarkably complex technology will work as planned. Shortly after construction was halted, a team of experts delivered a sobering report that warned of a large number of other potential technical issues that could undermine the plant’s operation. In addition, a long list of major safety problems has been discovered — though these problems are fixable, construction managers say. They include the potential for explosive hydrogen gas to build up inside the plant’s pipes; concerns that the steel frame had inadequate fireproofing; and the discovery of faulty welds in tanks designed to hold dangerous waste.
The cumulative effect of all the problems and challenges has been staggering.
Energy Department officials disclosed in May that the plant would probably cost $11.6 billion to build, double the estimate of only three years ago. An independent cost estimate due in coming weeks from the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to exceed $13 billion.
“You want to take somebody out and hang them,” said Rep. David L. Hobson, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that pays for the project. “It is already outrageous what it is costing.”
Meanwhile, officials in Washington state are furious about the continued delays. The state has a legal agreement with the Energy Department that promised the plant would be operating by 1999, meaning it is now 20 years behind schedule.
“We are extremely frustrated,” said Suzanne Dahl, the top official at Hanford from Washington’s Department of Ecology. “It is becoming impossible to accept more delays.”
Construction of the waste treatment complex, consisting of two dozen massive buildings, is only 30 percent completed, and engineering work is about 70 percent completed, Eschenberg said. Building and designing the plant at the same time was necessary, he said, to get the cleanup done as quickly as possible. The decision to halt construction was a prudent step that will give engineers time to solve all the problems, he said.
James Rispoli, assistant Energy secretary for the nuclear waste cleanup program, acknowledges the program has had setbacks but says it is not facing any problems that would derail the project.
Although work has stopped on the pretreatment plant and high-level-waste plant, construction is continuing on 20 other facilities in the complex, Rispoli said. “We are keeping the forward momentum,” he said.
Bechtel says it underestimated how much U.S. expertise in nuclear engineering has atrophied. Academic experts agree that the U.S. has lost much of its nuclear know-how. The history of problems at Hanford raises questions about how effectively the radioactive waste dumps left over from the Cold War can be cleaned up — even with the best technology and with almost unlimited federal spending.
Rough estimates for building and operating the plant — then decommissioning the facility when the job is done — range from more than $50 billion to $100 billion.
There is also an urgency to the mission, given the risk that radioactive waste will someday reach the Columbia River, the largest river in the West. About 1 million gallons of the waste has already leaked into the ground at Hanford, though government experts are confident the rate of leakage has slowed or stopped.
Government hydrologists say they have no evidence that any leaked sludge has reached the water table 250 feet below ground, and they cannot calculate when — or whether — the radioactivity will reach the Columbia River.
Such assurances are rejected by some outside experts, including geotechnical engineer John Brodeur, who conducted a comprehensive study of the tanks in the late 1990s for the Energy Department.
“Some of the ground under the tanks is screaming hot,” said Brodeur. “The groundwater is already contaminated.”
By 2019, the plant is supposed to be ready to transform the waste into glass, a process called vitrification. New pipelines would carry the waste to a facility consisting of three huge radioactive waste treatment plants, a water treatment plant, a laboratory, a power distribution center and a maintenance shop.
The idea is to separate the highly radioactive materials into two waste streams: a small amount of high-level waste that will be vitrified and shipped to a future dump in Nevada; and a much larger volume of lower-level waste to be vitrified and buried at Hanford. Eventually, there would be 10,000 canisters of high-level vitrified waste and 100,000 canisters of low-activity waste.
“They are taking a real risk the thing won’t work and they will have a $11.5 billion white elephant sitting in the desert,” said Tom Carpenter, nuclear oversight program director at the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group.
Amid growing congressional concerns about Hanford’s technology, Bechtel assembled a team of the top nuclear experts in the nation.
In a March report, they cited a number of defects that would have to be fixed for the plant to work. They said one of the two chemical processes was “undemonstrated” and the other “will not provide acceptable performance.” The whole pretreatment facility “will be difficult to reliably operate.”
The team of outside experts also raised concerns with the vitrification processes. Once the waste streams are separated, they are sent to two different final treatment plants for vitrification. The melters in the low-level plant could wear out or fail prematurely, while the piping in the high-level plant could get plugged up, they said.
The report raised the prospect that the Hanford treatment plant might wear out before all the waste was treated, particularly if it could not operate reliably and avoid shutdowns.
Rispoli, the Energy Department environmental chief, believes the outside assessment shows that the plant will work. All the Energy Department has to do is solve the problems identified in the report.