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.
After decades of research, experimentation and political inertia, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) started building the “Vit Plant” at Hanford in 2000. It’s intended to sequester the waste in stainless steel–encased glass logs, a process known as vitrification (hence “Vit”), so it cannot escape into the environment, barring natural disasters like earthquakes or catastrophic fires. But progress on the plant slowed to a crawl last August, when numerous interested parties acknowledged that the plant’s design might present serious safety risks. In response, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed an expert panel to find a way forward. Because 60 of the 177 underground tanks have already leaked and all are at increasing risk to do so, solving the problem is urgent.
Vitrification prep 101: Some tough homework
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.
Time may be limited. The 177 tanks, built between 1943 and 1986 and most intended for only about a 20-year life span, are decaying; at last count, six are leaking. The Vit Plant was supposed to start operating in 2007 and is now projected to begin in 2022. Its original budget was $4.3 billion and is now estimated at $13.4 billion. Nobody is suggesting the project be abandoned, yet forging ahead without confidence in the plant’s safe operation is not really an option either. The real question, many Hanford watchers say, is whether the country wants to pay for doing it right.
Busche is adamant that the safety issues must be solved before plans proceed further. “The level of robustness we have to put in all our systems is derived from the waste itself,” she says. “It’s the gift that keeps giving until it’s in a glass log.”