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Senator puts new focus on Hanford problems

Wed., Feb. 20, 2013, midnight

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 as Hanford watchdog than the previous chairman, former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

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 decadeslong effort to clean up Hanford wastes left over from 20th century plutonium production for nuclear weapons.

The cost of the cleanup has soared. Whistle-blowers have charged that faulty engineering designs have compromised safety and that officials have retaliated against some of them who raised concerns.


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