Hanford nuclear-reservation contractors acknowledge they still haven't resolved major safety problems and technical issues with a half-built, $12.2 billion plant to dispose of millions of gallons of radioactive waste.

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So many technical issues now plague a $12.2 billion plant that’s supposed to rid the Hanford nuclear reservation of millions of gallons of radioactive waste that contractors told a federal panel Thursday they can’t say how much waste it ultimately will treat.

Engineers admitted they still have not resolved major safety problems with the plant that’s supposed to help dispose of 53 million gallons of nuclear waste, 12 years after design of the Western world’s most expensive and complex construction project began.

During a rare public hearing in the Tri-Cities on Thursday, the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board — a nuclear-oversight board appointed by the White House — grilled Hanford contractors and officials with the Department of Energy about their efforts to build a plant to turn the toxic-nuclear slop in 177 underground tanks into glass after a half-century of bomb making.

Even though the project is half-built, engineers acknowledged they still hadn’t figured out how, once it is operational, they will keep waste stirred up so it doesn’t spark a nuclear chain reaction.

Officials also are still working out ways to avoid hydrogen explosions in miles of piping and prevent radioactive waste from eating its way through metal tanks in a building that will be so polluted no human could get inside and make repairs during the 40-year life of the plant.

The safety issues and the insistence by Hanford contractors in recent years that they have everything under control has infuriated the safety board and other Hanford watchdogs. Safety-board staff member Steven Stokes pointed out that the risk of corrosion had been raised as long ago as 2001.

“It’s frustrating for us that issues like erosion and corrosion are still coming up at this phase,” Suzanne Dahl, with the state Department of Ecology’s nuclear-waste program, told the board.

Contractors appeared chastened Thursday during their testimony before the board — often admitting publicly that their search for solutions hasn’t been easy or always gone well.

Thomas Patterson, engineering manager for the plant, acknowledged that because waste in each of Hanford’s underground tanks is a weird concoction of hundreds of chemicals and radionuclides, some problems “could come up again and again and again every time we learn new information about what’s in the tank farm.”

But their answers still angered whistle-blowers who have complained that lead contractor Bechtel National and its subcontractors are way behind because their instinct has been to bury safety concerns — and punish those who raise them.

Walt Tamosaitis, a nuclear engineer who works for Hanford contractor URS but says he was demoted in 2010 for raising safety concerns, told the board the proposed technical fixes he heard Thursday are years too late.

“I believe some of the answers you’ve heard today would be OK, if this were the first or second year of design,” he said. “But it’s been a decade.”

Without oversight by the safety board, Tamosaitis said, Bechtel “would have proceeded to build a plant that would not work.”

Part of the problem now is that the strange mix of waste in each tank will dictate how dangerous the plant is to operate.

So to make sure the plant is safe, engineers may have to rule out processing some volume of the waste, either because it contains high volumes of plutonium or because the mix of chemicals and gases is corrosive or explosive.

That means some as-yet unproven new technologies will have to be used to deal with at least some of Hanford’s waste.

Asked by the chairman of the safety board how much waste will fall into that category, Dale Knutson, the Department of Energy’s project director, said it was still too soon to say.

“As a personal opinion, I’m still convinced a vast majority of the waste will be treatable,” he said.

The safety board plans to raise more issues with Energy officials and Hanford contractors during a second meeting in Washington, D.C., in May.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.