RICHLAND — A $13.4 billion Hanford nuclear-waste treatment plant may not be completed by a 2019 deadline because of serious, unresolved engineering challenges.
“Right now, the Department of Energy cannot say what changes are needed, when they will be completed, or what they will cost,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., at the end of a tour Tuesday of the cleanup effort at the Hanford nuclear reservation. “This is not acceptable for a plant that is, in theory, more than half complete.”
Wyden is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over the Hanford cleanup. That effort includes treating contaminated groundwater, storing 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical wastes and building an enormous waste-treatment plant.
Wyden is expected to take a more aggressive approach to watchdogging Hanford than the previous chairman, former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico.
On Tuesday, Wyden said he will hold hearings on Hanford and work with Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to make the issue a bigger priority in the U.S. Senate.
“This should represent an unacceptable risk to the Pacific Northwest for everyone,” Wyden said. “These are problems that have to be solved.”
Under a settlement agreement the federal government reached with Washington state, the treatment plant is supposed to be in a startup test phase by 2019 and begin full-scale processing by 2022.
Energy Department officials wouldn’t predict when the plant will be completed, but Washington state still considers those deadlines binding.
“We realize that this may be optimistic. But legally that’s what the consent document requires,” said Dieter Bohrmann, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology. “If it’s going to change, we are going to need to have a discussion.”
Wyden’s scrutiny comes at another difficult moment in the decades-long effort to clean up Hanford wastes left over from 20th century plutonium production for nuclear weapons.
The cost of the cleanup has soared. Whistleblowers have charged that faulty engineering designs have compromised safety and that officials have retaliated against some of them who raised concerns.
And the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration set to go into effect next monthwould trim the money allocated to Hanford and further slow the cleanup.
The waste-treatment plant is designed to immobilize the waste by blending it with glass, then placing the glass logs into stainless steel containers for long-term storage.
The vitrification plant will cost $13.4 billion, according to a Government Accountablity Office report released in December, 2012.
The plant consists of four major facilities, as well as operations and maintenance buildings, spreading like a small city over some 65 acres of arid plateau in south-central Washington.
Construction is more than half finished, even though the engineering is only about 80 percent complete.
The biggest questions surround a pretreatment facility for high-level wastes, which is now being reviewed to determine how to safely handle all the different types of wastes.
Engineers will have two years to resolve the technical issues or develop a “credible plan” to resolve them, according to Carrie Meyer, an Energy Department spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department and contractors have to manage the wastes left in aging storage tanks.
Wyden visited the site of a single-shelled tank that the Energy Department now believes is losing up to 300 gallons of waste a year.
That amount is small compared with the 1 million gallons that has leaked from storage tanks in decades past. But Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said it was the first leak reported since 2005, when workers completed a decadelong effort to try to stabilize the tank wastes by pumping out liquids.
Energy Department officials and contractors explained how they are pumping the waste out of some of those tanks and into double-shelled tanks that offer more protection.
Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber have said that the Energy Department should build new storage tanks.
Such an effort would likely require more money from Congress or redirecting money from other parts of the cleanup.
Wyden said he shares the governor’s concerns, but he says he needs to spend more time with scientists to review the tank issue.