The most toxic and voluminous nuclear waste in the U.S.—208 million liters —sits in decaying underground tanks at the Hanford Site (a nuclear reservation) in southeastern Washington State. It accumulated there from the middle of World War II, when the Manhattan Project invented the first nuclear weapon, to 1987, when the last reactor shut down. The federal government’s current attempt at a permanent solution for safely storing that waste for centuries—the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant here—has hit a major snag in the form of potential chain reactions, hydrogen explosions and leaks from metal corrosion. And the revelation last February that six more of the storage tanks are currently leaking has further ramped up the pressure for resolution.
The plant’s construction, currently contracted by the DoE to Bechtel National, Inc., may be the most complicated engineering project underway in the U.S. But back in 2000 the DoE and Bechtel decided to save time and money by starting construction before crucial structures and processes had been designed and properly tested at a scale comparable to full operation. This wasn’t such a good idea, says Dirk Dunning, nuclear material specialist with the Oregon Department of Energy. “The worst possible time to save money is at the beginning. You’re better off to be very nearly complete on design before you begin construction.”
“The way [the plant] is currently designed poses unacceptable risks. DoE now admits that,” says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge. In December the Government Accountability Office issued a highly critical analysis of the Vit Plant’s unresolved safety issues
Disagreements over the safety risks have also prompted outspoken protests from several senior Hanford officials. Chief project engineer Gary Brunson resigned in January. Busche and former deputy chief process engineer Walter Tamosaitis filed whistleblower complaints alleging that their concerns about safety were suppressed by Bechtel. (Bechtel declined to be interviewed for this story, citing nondisclosure agreements signed with Chu’s expert panel.)