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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Hanford construction needs to slow down

Construction of a typical nuclear facility does not begin until 90 percent of the design work has been finished. Design of the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant at Hanford is only 80 percent along, yet construction is more than half complete.

The project, WTP for short, is intended to “glassify” Hanford waste into logs or caskets far more stable than tanks that date back decades. But construction continues one year past the envisioned start of operations. Costs have more than tripled. Start-up is not expected until 2019 – at the earliest – and its projected operating life now extends to more than one century after work began on the reactors that produced the plutonium used in the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

Last week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued an extremely harsh report on the performance of contractor Bechtel National Inc. and the oversight of the U.S. Department of Energy, which has awarded millions in inappropriate performance bonuses, including $15 million the GAO said should be clawed back.

But easily the most troubling comment was this: “DOE cannot be certain whether the WTP can be completed on schedule and, once completed, whether it will successfully operate as intended.”

That’s a heck of an unknown for a $13.4 billion – and counting – project. Incredibly, after so many decades, Bechtel and DOE have not yet sampled the waste enough to know all its physical, radiological and chemical characteristics.

Bechtel’s frustrated project manager, Frank Russo, attributes the huge cost and time overruns to an inability to get that fundamental task done, and requirements that the plant be modified to handle materials with a broader spectrum of size, abrasiveness and chemistry.

Some plant components must work perfectly whatever comes their way. “Black cells” treating the most contaminated waste, for example, will become so toxic to humans that none can enter during the facility’s 40-year operating life.

If DOE would provide a fixed set of specifications, and Congress budget certainty, Russo says, the project will be able to move forward with a minimum of further delay and additional costs.

And he points out the real worst-case is not more construction hiccups, but catastrophic failures of the tanks holding the 56 million gallons of untreated waste. Much would undoubtedly reach the Columbia River.

That threat explains the overlapping, and failed, fast-tracking of the design/construction process.

GAO recommends a work stoppage on some components until design work is much further along, and much tougher oversight of Bechtel. A DOE inspector in August argued Bechtel should be pulled from all design work.

It’s time for a timeout that reduces work to a minimum that would sustain the core of highly skilled engineers, technicians and workmen on the project. A study analyzing what is known and what needs to be known for final design will not be completed until August 2014.

That would seem a sensible time to reassess, and push this massive project to conclusion.