The federal government is building a small industrial city on a plateau above the Columbia River to transform 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into solid glass, which theoretically can be stored safely for thousands of years.
The Energy Department has completed an exhaustive technical review of the plant designed to treat waste from the former Hanford nuclear-weapons site and ordered the manager of the project to fix more than 500 problems that could compromise its future operation.
The government also told San Francisco-based Bechtel to comply with 10 major recommendations from the study, including some that would require design changes to the partially built plant in central Washington.
William Hamel, the federal project director overseeing the construction of the $12.2 billion cleanup facility, said the Energy Department is trying to identify any potential defects as early as possible and get them addressed before they cause further delays or later problems.
The government is building a small industrial city on a plateau above the Columbia River to transform 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into solid glass, which theoretically can be stored safely for thousands of years.
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The process involves a “melter,” which exposes the waste to extremely high temperatures.
The 586-square-mile Hanford site is generally considered the most contaminated place in the country. The sludge, a byproduct of the chemical process used to isolate plutonium, is stored in 177 underground tanks, a third of which have leaked.
But the complex job has been encountering problems for years, most recently when the Energy Department said it would delay full operation of the facility for an additional 17 years, until 2039.
A draft of the review last summer identified more than 300 significant design vulnerabilities. The final review cites 519 vulnerabilities, some major but some minor.
The order to Bechtel on Friday involved a melter designed to handle lower-level radioactive materials, which would be solidified and buried at Hanford.
Hamel said the low-activity melter is a safe and well-designed facility, despite the seemingly large number of problems that the technical teams identified.
He said 95 percent of the vulnerabilities have already been recognized and that many of them are already being addressed.
The review team, which included experts from the Energy Department, Bechtel and outside organizations, found some systemic problems, asserting that they “observed recurring fundamental programmatic design-process deficiencies.”
Left unresolved, the team warned, the problems could affect how the entire facility operates.
Construction of the melter is 78 percent complete, so the fixes are coming late in the project.
A leaked draft version of the report, which the Los Angeles Times reported on last August, found that the plant had 362 significant design vulnerabilities. The larger number in the final report includes a broader range of vulnerabilities, Hamel said.
“Is there anything new that caused me grief? No,” Hamel said.
Among the 10 recommendations was a call for Bechtel to examine the plant’s ventilation system, which could allow contaminated air to leak into areas that are supposed to be isolated from radioactivity.
The matter is one that could result in design changes. Another key recommendation requires Bechtel to evaluate whether there could be overheating in the area where molten glass is poured into canisters.
The report also identified an O-ring on a tank that is designed to withstand 1,250-degree gases, but that could fail at 250 degrees. Hamel said the engineering teams are evaluating the temperatures and the fix would be relatively easy.
Hamel said the fixes and implementation of recommendations would not affect the cost of the project.
The action plan was “mutually agreed upon,” said Bechtel spokeswoman Staci West.