Construction resumes at Hanford nuke waste plant

YAKIMA — Construction ramped up again Wednesday on a massive waste-treatment plant at south-central Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland.

The $12.2 billion vitrification plant, long considered the cornerstone of Hanford cleanup, is being built to convert highly toxic radioactive waste into glasslike logs for long-term storage. However, construction on large areas of the plant — the pretreatment and high-level waste facilities — were stalled for 20 months amid seismic concerns and construction problems.

While those sections were on hold, about 450 workers continued to build the analytical laboratory, low-level waste and ancillary buildings.

Then on Wednesday, the number of workers topped 600 as construction began in earnest on the stalled portions of the plant, said John Eschenberg, project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages Hanford cleanup.

“This really represents the culmination of a great deal of work over the past 20 months,” Eschenberg said. “I’m excited to restore the project’s momentum.”

Workers will continue to focus on completing the laboratory, low-activity waste building and support facilities by 2012. But the number of workers will gradually increase to about 1,400 over the next year as the contractor, Bechtel National, resumes full-scale construction.

Nearly $3.5 billion has been spent on the project so far. Design of the plant is about 75 percent complete, while construction is 35 percent complete.

Once completed, the plant will stand 12 stories tall and be the size of four football fields.

“We’re being very methodical about resumption of construction,” Eschenberg said. “You can’t go from zero to 60 in two seconds. You want to make sure the guys coming on are appropriately trained.”

At the same time, he said, restoring the project’s credibility has been crucial.

“I’ve sweated blood to restore the confidence and restore the project’s credibility, not only with the stakeholders, the local community, but with Congress,” he said. “We need that confidence and credibility so we can assure ourselves of steady and predictable funding.”

The budget for the project is $690 million a year.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $50 billion.

Last fall, the Energy Department extended the projected completion date to 2019.

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