The US Department of Energy (DOE) said on 16 December that construction of a plant to process highly radioactive sludge at the Hanford former nuclear weapons site in central Washington state will cost an additional $4.5bn, increasing the total project cost to $16.8bn. The Hanford treatment plant, a small industrial city with some two dozen facilities on a desert plateau along the Columbia River, is more than 10 years behind schedule and the cost has almost quadrupled since the original estimate was made in 2000. The government intends to process 56m gallons of radioactive sludge stored in leaky underground tanks and transform it into solid glass, which could then be stored safely for thousands of years.
However a long history of errors, miscalculations and bad practice has resulted only in a massive, partially built concrete facility that has been under a stop-work order for three years because of serious technical problems. These related primarily to a melter building for high-level radioactive waste and a pre-treatment building to prepare the sludge for chemical processing.
Following a technical review, DOE earlier this year ordered fixes for more than 500 problems, including some fundamental design deficiencies at the melter. Construction of the building and equipment was 78% complete at the time. In November, the Justice Department settled a False Claims Act suit against two major contractors at the plant, San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp and engineering, design and construction management company AECOM. The allegations were originally brought by three engineers at the plant, concerned that the plant design was fundamentally flawed. The two companies agreed to pay $125m in damages. The Justice Department in its suit alleged that the companies improperly billed the government for materials and services from vendors that did not meet quality control requirements, for piping and waste vessels that did not meet quality standards and for testing from vendors that did not have “compliant quality programmes.”
“DOE is committed to addressing the environmental legacy of decades of nuclear weapons’ production activities at the Hanford Site in a safe and cost-effective manner,” said Kevin Smith, manager of the office that oversees the waste treatment plant construction. “We are confident that the modified contract and baseline represents the most effective and expeditious path towards beginning tank waste treatment at Hanford as soon as practicable.” However,
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, which helped to disclose problems at the site, said the new cost estimate puts a target on the plant that could lead the Energy Department to begin searching for lower-cost and less safe solutions to the waste problem.