Energy secretary says new plan coming for Hanford problems

RICHLAND — Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Wednesday he intends to have a new plan by the end of the summer for resolving technical problems with a waste treatment plant under construction at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

The waste treatment plant has long been considered the cornerstone of cleanup at south-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which receives roughly one-third of the Energy Department’s annual budget for nuclear waste cleanup nationally.

Moniz visited the site Wednesday for the first time since being confirmed by the Senate in May. He last visited Hanford in 1998 as an Energy Department employee.

“We will put together a plan, going forward, that recognizes today’s realities, both technical realities and the uncertainties of budget realities,” he said.

The federal government created Hanford at the height of World War II as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The site produced plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending the war, and continued production through the Cold War.

Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades. The effort — with a price tag of about $2 billion annually — has cost taxpayers $40 billion to date and is estimated will cost $115 billion more.

The most challenging task so far has been the removal highly radioactive waste from aging, underground tanks, some of which are currently leaking, and for the design and construction of a plant to treat that waste.

The Energy Department recently notified Washington and Oregon that it may miss two upcoming deadlines to empty some tanks and to complete a key part of the plant to handle some of the worst waste.

Meanwhile, six tanks with just a single wall are leaking into the soil. A seventh, sturdier, double-shell tank is leaking into the annulus, the space between its two walls.

Those leaking tanks have imposed added pressure on the Energy Department and its hired contractor, Bechtel National Inc., to complete the long-delayed plant that would encase the waste in glass-like logs for disposal deep underground.

Once targeted for completion in 2011, the plant now won’t be operating before 2019. Concerns center on whether the plant, as designed, will be able to adequately mix the waste and on erosion and corrosion in tanks and piping — concerns that have been raised by several workers, leading to whistleblower complaints of retribution and federal investigations at the site.

Moniz noted the complexity of the one-of-a-kind project, but said the plan the Energy Department will put forward in the next few months will address those technical concerns. He also said he would be holding Energy Department contractors more accountable, and not just at the Hanford site.

“The focus on management and performance is going to be elevated considerably,” he said. “I plan to hold contractors across the complex much more accountable.”

Originally bid at $4.3 billion, the price tag for the plant has since grown to more than $12.3 billion, a figure that is expected to rise even further.

Moniz met with Energy Department and contractor employees in the morning, before traveling by bus across the sprawling 586-square-mile site to see key cleanup projects firsthand, including the waste treatment plant and the underground tank sites. He also was scheduled to meet with some whistleblowers privately on Wednesday evening.

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