RICHLAND – Officials with the U.S. Department of Energy at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation must submit an outline by Sept. 2 for halting work on the massive waste treatment plant at the site, according to a memo by agency officials in Washington, D.C.
The plant is the federal government’s largest construction project, but skyrocketing costs forced the department to announce plans to halt some construction late last month.
The move came as a congressional subcommittee requested an investigation into the rising costs of the plant, which is being built to treat millions of gallons of radioactive waste left from Cold War-era nuclear weapons production. The Energy Department’s Office of River Protection must submit a comprehensive plan to agency headquarters outlining an orderly halt to construction on the plant.
The plan is due Sept. 2, said Charles Anderson, principal deputy assistant secretary for environmental management, in a memo to Roy Schepens, manager of the Office of River Protection.
The memo also makes clear that any future decisions about key facilities for the plant will be handled in Washington, D.C., rather than at Hanford offices. In addition, all work authorizations and technical directions related to facilities that will handle highly radioactive waste will require Anderson’s written approval, the memo said.
Earlier this year, the Energy Department began to study the plant’s design and cost estimate after a scientific review found that the force of the ground movements at the plant site during a severe earthquake would be 38 percent greater than previously estimated.
Agency officials have said they are still working on new construction costs in light of those problems. The plant’s cost was estimated at $4.35 billion before the contract was awarded in 2000. Already, the cost has grown more than 30 percent – to $5.8 billion.
Congressional leaders have said the new problems could push the estimated cost closer to $10 billion and delay its start by four years. Under the Tri-Party agreement, a cleanup pact signed by the Energy Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington state, the vitrification plant must be built by 2009 and fully operating by 2011 following two years of testing.
“The Waste Treatment Plant is central to fulfilling our obligations under the Tri-Party Agreement and a key part of our overall cleanup strategy at Hanford,” Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a prepared statement released Friday. “We are committed to its completion.”
For 40 years, the Hanford reservation made plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Today, work there centers on a $50 billion to $60 billion cleanup, to be finished by 2035.
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