RICHLAND – Workers at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site are approaching a turning point in building a massive waste treatment plant there, more than two years after the federal government shut down the project over seismic concerns.
The vitrification plant at south-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is among the largest industrial construction projects nationally, both in cost and sheer size. In recent years, the project has been mired in technical problems, delays and escalating costs, even as state and federal officials underscored its importance for ridding Hanford of radioactive waste.
But workers expect to have completed 50 percent of the project by early fall, and just two of a long list of technical problems remain to be resolved.
Neither means the end is in sight, but recent progress can’t be overlooked, said Suzanne Dahl, tank waste treatment manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, which regulates the federal government’s cleanup efforts.
“Wouldn’t it be great to be on the other side of 50 percent and heading downhill?” Dahl said. “That’s a really big deal. It means we’re just getting closer and closer to being able to turn it on.”
John Eschenberg, project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy, said the project is in as good a situation as it’s ever been.
“It’s been a bumpy road,” he said. “But the things that made us sweat blood are key to the success.”
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Plutonium production continued through the Cold War, leaving a mess of radioactive debris and waste to be cleaned up on the 586-square-mile site.
The government spends $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup – one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally. About $690 million of that goes for design and construction of the vitrification plant, long considered the cornerstone of cleanup.
The plant is designed to convert millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste into glass logs for safe disposal underground. At least 1 million gallons of waste have leaked from storage in aging underground tanks at Hanford, contaminating the groundwater and threatening the nearby Columbia River.
But calling it a plant is misleading. The 65-acre complex includes three major nuclear facilities and a laboratory for analyzing, sorting and treating waste, plus 21 smaller support buildings and on-site power and water treatment plants. Once completed, the largest building will stand 12 stories tall with the length and width of two football fields.
About 1,500 workers in hard hats bustle through the job site, which will require more than 260,000 cubic yards of concrete and more than 4 million feet of electrical cable. Another 1,600 people work on the project in offices in nearby Richland.
Workers reported an increasing number of accidents in April and May, Eschenberg said, raising concerns about worker safety. But he said the number of incidents has declined so far in June and that corrective actions seem to be working.
In 2006, the Energy Department suspended construction for 22 months after an independent review concluded the agency had underestimated the force of ground movements at the site during a severe earthquake. Additional engineering measures were taken to fix the problems.
Engineers also used the downtime to address 28 potential problems raised in a 2005 study by an independent panel of experts. The Energy Department built a $90 million platform to test waste treatment methods to address some of those concerns – the first time researchers were able to test those processes outside of a laboratory.
All but two of those problems have been resolved. They center on questions about the efficiency of waste mixing and an automatic sampling system, and Eschenberg said the agency and its contractor expect to resolve them by October.
The delays pushed the operating date to 2019, a step state officials were unhappy with but accepted. The cost of the project also ballooned from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $12.2 billion.
Ted Feigenbaum, who took over May 1 as the project manager for contractor Bechtel National Inc., said nobody doubts the importance and magnitude of the project but that challenges were inevitable.
“This is a first of its kind,” he said. “Am I surprised that there were problems in the past? No, not in a project of this size or magnitude.”
But time and money were well spent in recent years to test the plant’s processes, he said, and those same testing platforms will allow for operator training before the plant opens.
Bechtel and the Energy Department agreed to a new, incentive-laden contract in January. Bechtel already has earned $7.5 million in incentive money for meeting its first two deadlines, Eschenberg said.
In recent years, the Energy Department and its contractor often struggled to meet engineering and construction goals, Dahl said. But recent status reports show they’ve been resolving issues that once hindered them and schedules are being kept.
“It starts to give us a really good feeling that we’re eventually going to be making glass and cleaning up waste,” she said. “It’s a long process, but without the vit (vitrification) plant, you really can’t get started on the biggest of all mitigation measures that have to happen at Hanford.”