Review finds more than 500 problems in plant meant to treat Hanford nuclear waste via Los Angeles Times

The Energy Department has completed an exhaustive technical review of the plant designed to treat waste from the former Hanford nuclear weapons site and ordered the manager of the project to fix more than 500 problems that could compromise its future operation.


The government is building a small industrial city on a plateau above the Columbia River to transform 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into solid glass, which theoretically can be stored safely for thousands of years. The process involves a “melter,” which exposes the waste to extremely high temperatures.

The 586-square-mile Hanford site is generally considered the most contaminated place in the country. The sludge, a byproduct of the chemical process used to isolate plutonium, is stored in 177 underground tanks, a third of which have leaked.

But the complex job has been encountering problems for years, most recently when the Energy Department said it would delay full operation of the facility for another 17 years — until 2039.


The review team, which included experts from the Energy Department, Bechtel and outside organizations, found some systemic problems, asserting that they “observed recurring fundamental programmatic design process deficiencies.” Left unresolved, the team warned, the problems could affect how the entire facility operates.

Construction of the melter is 78% complete, so the fixes are coming somewhat late in the project.

A leaked draft version of the report, which the Los Angeles Times reported on last August, found that the plant had 362 significant design vulnerabilities.


Among the 10 recommendations was a call for Bechtel to examine the plant’s ventilation system, which could allow contaminated air to leak into areas that are supposed to be isolated from radioactivity. The matter is one that could result in design changes. Another key recommendation requires Bechtel to evaluate whether there could be overheating in the area where molten glass is poured into canisters.

The report also identified an O-ring on a tank, designed to withstand 1,250-degree gases, but which could fail at 250 degrees. Hamel said that the engineering teams are already evaluating the temperatures and that the fix would be relatively easy.

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