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Nuclear safety board warns of trouble ahead at Hanford, but could lose role under Trump via The Seattle Times

Nuclear safety board report finds serious problems persist with a massive facility to help treat Hanford’s chemical and radioactive wastes. The report comes as the Trump administration considers a proposal to downsize or do away with the independent oversight board.

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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 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.

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