Seven decades after scientists came here during World War II to create plutonium for the first atomic bomb, a new generation is struggling with an even more daunting task: cleaning up the radioactive mess.
The U.S. government is building a treatment plant to stabilize and contain 56 million gallons of waste left from a half-century of nuclear weapons production. The radioactive sludge is so dangerous that a few hours of exposure could be fatal. A major leak could contaminate water supplies serving millions across the Northwest. The cleanup is the most complex and costly environmental restoration ever attempted.
A USA TODAY investigation has found that the troubled, 10-year effort to build the treatment plant faces enormous problems just as it reaches what was supposed to be its final stage.
In exclusive interviews, several senior engineers cited design problems that could bring the plant’s operations to a halt before much of the waste is treated. Their reports have spurred new technical reviews and raised official concerns about the risk of a hydrogen explosion or uncontrolled nuclear reaction inside the plant. Either could damage critical equipment, shut the facility down or, worst case, allow radiation to escape.
The plant’s $12.3 billion price tag, already triple original estimates, is well short of what it will cost to address the problems and finish the project. And the plant’s start-up date, originally slated for last year and pushed back to its current target of 2019, is likely to slip further.
“We’re continuing with a failed design,” said Donald Alexander, a senior U.S. government scientist on the project.
Continue reading at Hanford: America’s Nuclear Nightmare