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Lawmakers want probe of Hanford project

Shannon Dininny Associated Press

YAKIMA – In the latest embarrassing setback to the federal government’s largest construction project, a congressional subcommittee is calling for an investigation into a multibillion-dollar waste treatment plant at south-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Paul Anderson, a spokesman for the General Accountability Office, confirmed Tuesday that the Republican chairman, Rep. David Hobson of Ohio, and ranking Democrat, Rep. Peter Visclosky of Indiana, on the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water requested an audit of the project in a letter dated June 24.

Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Energy officials said Tuesday they have halted construction on parts of the plant most affected by concerns about seismic instability, in light of a new review released earlier this year.

The plant is being built to treat millions of gallons of radioactive waste left from Cold War-era nuclear weapons production.

Anderson declined to release additional details or the letter, as did spokesmen for the committee members.

However, the review is likely to focus on the exploding cost of the project – a point that has been a continuing source of alarm for the Energy Department, which manages cleanup at the highly contaminated Hanford site.

Construction was estimated at $4.35 billion before the contract was awarded in 2000. Already, the cost has grown more than 30 percent in the past four years – to $5.8 billion.

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.

In 2002, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board raised concerns that the Energy Department had failed to adequately investigate the impact a severe earthquake might have on the plant. The Energy Department had gathered seismic data from the entire 586-square-mile Hanford reservation to determine the impact such a quake might have on the plant, but it did not conduct a seismic investigation of the plant site itself.

The Energy Department and the contractor hired to build the plant have stressed that the chances of a severe earthquake at the site are slim.

The agency has notified Congress that the project’s cost is expected to grow by at least 10 percent or more, said Bruce Carnes, associate deputy secretary. But the Energy Department will not speculate on a final cost estimate or the schedule before a new review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is completed, he said.

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.

Much of the cleanup involves treating 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste stewing in 177 aging underground tanks less than 10 miles from the Columbia River.

The waste treatment plant will use a process called vitrification to turn the waste into glass logs for permanent disposal in a nuclear waste repository.

Under the Tri-Party agreement, a cleanup pact signed by the Energy Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington state, the plant must be operating by 2011.

The deadline already was pushed back from 2007 after the Energy Department fired the original contractor, BNFL Inc. That company had increased its cost estimate from $6.9 billion to $15.2 billion in 2000.

The plant is being designed as it is being built, which has resulted in significant cost overruns. The design is about 75 percent complete. Construction is about 35 percent complete, but work has been slowed or shifted to other parts of the plant while engineers reevaluate its design to address seismic concerns.

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