An unfinished $16.8 billion complex to treat chemical and radioactive waste at the Hanford site in Central Washington continues to suffer design problems that risk explosions and radioactive releases from unintended nuclear reactions, according to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report.
The board’s findings are at odds with a much more optimistic assessment offered by the U.S. Energy Department of the efforts to treat the toxic leftovers of decades of atomic weapons production. In a written statement last February, the Energy Department declared that major issues previously identified by the safety board had been “resolved,” and found that design work could resume on what the department calls a critical pretreatment plant needed to process highly radioactive waste.
The latest report is more sobering news for a project first conceived more than two decades ago that has suffered from huge increases in costs and repeated delays amid safety concerns.
The report’s release comes at a difficult time for the board. The Trump administration is considering a proposal to downsize or abolish the board, which for nearly 30 years has provided independent oversight of defense nuclear sites across the country. The board’s backers say this report — challenging Energy Department assumptions — is more evidence of its vital review role.
“They don’t want to hear what the board has to say, but they absolutely need to,” said Dirk Dunning, a retired Oregon Department of Energy engineer who worked on Hanford issues for more than 20 years.
The board has been deeply involved in watchdogging the development of Hanford’s waste-treatment complex, the largest of its kind in the world, which broke ground in 2002 on 65 acres of the nuclear reservation. The goal is to transform some 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste into glass rods that can be safely put into long-term storage. The process requires a hugely complex engineering effort due — in part — to the wide range of waste materials currently stored in 177 underground tanks, more than a third of which have leaked over the years.
But safety concerns, including those cited in the latest board report, have plagued the pretreatment facility for years even as billions of dollars have been budgeted for engineering, labor, equipment and other costs.
“There are all the same issues and they still haven’t been addressed,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a public interest group that has advocated on behalf of whistleblowers, workers and accountability during the cleanup.
An Energy Department spokeswoman at Hanford’s Office of River Protection said the board’s analysis will be taken into consideration when design work resumes. But it still is unclear when that may happen.
The spokeswoman, Yvonne Levardi, said that when the Energy Department determines a plant problem has been resolved, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is fixed but that enough progress has been made to resume design work.
During World War II, Hanford was claimed by the federal government as a secret site for producing plutonium that was used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Nine reactors would eventually operate at Hanford, with the last one shut down in 1987.
The pretreatment plant — the size of nearly four football fields — has long been designated as a key part of the cleanup operations. It will have the ability to concentrate, then filter out solid high-level radioactive waste that is some of the most challenging material stored in the tanks.
When completed, the pretreatment plant is designed to contain more than 100 miles of piping and four huge stainless-steel tanks — each able to hold 375,000 gallons of waste — that will sit behind steel-laced concrete walls that workers cannot access.
The project is being run by Bechtel National, the lead contractor. By 2010, whistleblowers and the federal safety board had raised concerns over the risks of explosions from the buildup of hydrogen gas in the pipes and the potential for radioactive releases from unintended nuclear chain reactions, known as criticality hazards.
The design challenges have prompted a workaround to process what’s known as low-activity waste — material containing small concentrations of radionuclides requiring less protection for public health than highly radioactive waste. That work is expected to begin by 2022. But the deadline to open the pretreatment facility has been pushed until 2036. It is intended to handle all waste, including highly radioactive material, such as spent fuel from nuclear reactors.
Some skeptics question whether the pretreatment plant will eventually be abandoned in favor of alternative technologies.
“It is a massive project, and a lot of very serious issues have to be worked out before it can operate,” said Rick Schapira, a former deputy general counsel for the board. “If they can’t be addressed, you have to look to other ways to treat the waste.”
But the Energy Department statement released in February called resolution of the pretreatment plant issues “critically important” to the overall mission. It said that the department had confirmed design, process changes and safety controls to address the potential for criticality and hydrogen buildups in pipes and vessels that posed an explosion risk.
“I could not be prouder of our … technical and nuclear safety teams for their focus and commitment to resolve these technical issues,” Bill Hamel, the assistant project manager for Hanford’s waste treatment plant, said in the statement.
The board’s review of that work was completed in June, and delivered Oct. 12 to James Owendoff, an acting assistant energy secretary. It is unclear why the board waited more than three months to formally deliver the report. A board spokeswoman did not return a reporter’s phone calls seeking comment for this story.
The board report cites 14 remaining problems. They range from a mixing system that may not operate reliably to a “lack of sufficient technical rigor” in safety assumptions required to handle heavy plutonium particles that pose a risk of criticality.
Washington state’s Department of Ecology also monitors Hanford.
Dan McDonald, a state project manager, had not read the latest report until a reporter contacted the department. He did not dispute the board’s findings but said that he feels significant progress has been made toward resolving the problems at the pretreatment plant.
“Nothing in this report is new business for me,” McDonald said.
‘Appointed to Undo the Board’?
The Hanford report is the kind of tough-edged review that has long characterized the board’s work. But the board now faces critics, some from within its own ranks, who call for an end to these independent reviews.
In a June 29 letter to the Office of Management and Budget, current safety board chair Sean Sullivan called the board “a relic of the Cold War-era defense establishment” that is no longer needed by an Energy Department that has developed its own internal regulation. News of the letter was first reported last month by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative organization based in Washington, D.C.
Sullivan is one of five board members who serve five-year terms. They are backed up by a professional staff of more than 100 able to dive into the formidable challenges of the federal nuclear-weapons sites.
The board members are appointed by the president, with no more than three members of any one party able to serve at the same time. Former President Barack Obama named Sullivan — a Republican attorney and retired Navy submarine officer — to the board in 2012. President Donald Trump appointed him chairman in January.
The board has no regulatory powers to require the Energy Department to take action. But its reports are made public and the Energy Department is required to respond to the panel’s formal recommendations.
The board also has provided an important forum for whistleblowers when they found that Energy Department and contractors ignored their concerns.
In 2011, the board — in response to whistleblower allegations — released a harsh assessment of a “failed safety culture” at the Hanford waste-treatment complex. The board found that technical objections were “discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review.” This had a “substantial probability” of jeopardizing the project mission, the report found.
Schapira, the former board deputy general counsel, participated in the Hanford whistleblower investigation. He said that report was an important document that led to a broader review of the Energy Department’s safety culture at other nuclear sites.
Schapira, who retired from the board in 2013, said it also triggered a “buzz saw of opposition” from contractors who have pushed to revise the board statutes in Congress. Those critics now appear to have an ally in Sullivan who, in keeping with Trump’s goal of downsizing the executive branch, suggested the board be shut down, folded into the Energy Department or reduced in size.
“It’s a pretty shocking letter,” Schapira said, referring to the June letter. “One could construe from it that he was appointed to undo the board.”