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After scathing report, work may stop at Hanford's waste treatment plant

A government sign at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Flickr Photo/Tobin (CC BY-SA 2.0)/
A government sign at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

Kim Malcolm talks with Northwest News Network Richland correspondent Anna King about a report from the Government Accountability Office that raises serious safety concerns at Hanford's waste treatment plant.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Interview Highlights", "style": "wide"}]]What is Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant supposed to accomplish?

King: There are 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge in aging underground tanks that are about the size of a house. They're full of radioactive sludge, and they're near the Columbia River. Already, 1 million gallons have leaked out.

This plant is meant to turn that sludge into more stable glass logs that can be stored for the long term.

The sludge is so hazardous that once they start this process up in this plant, no one will be able to enter certain rooms called "black cells" ever again because the stuff is so hazardous.

There’s a lot in this 31-page report. Break it down for us. 

It says the Department of Energy (which is the manager of Hanford) and Bechtel (its contractor) haven't been keeping good enough records on the quality of the components of the plant. That means steel, nuts and bolts, and other types of building materials that are integrated into the plant can’t be proven to be nuclear-grade right now.

The report also says the Department of Energy might be too close to the problem to catch things like engineering errors or construction deficiencies.

The report also called for work to stop in several areas of the plant where they think the problems are too great.

What’s the significance of this report?

The big fear is that this plant is going to be a multi-billion dollar albatross in the middle of the desert that just collects tumbleweeds. 

Some of this material is explosive. Some of it has hydrogen that can build up. Other components of the waste are nuclear-grade plutonium. We need to know that this plant is robust enough to handle the job.

Hanford has been dogged by problems for years now. Safety issues, rising costs, and delays. Why has this cleanup been so troubled?

People often compare this project with the first mission to the moon. People haven't done it before. Other waste has been treated, but nothing as complex as Hanford's waste.

Also, they don't even know where this glass will ultimately end up. It used to be directed towards the Yucca Mountain project, but that's been mothballed since the Obama Administration. So if you don't know where the glass is going to go, you don't know what type of glass you can build. Because chemically, it has to be compatible with where you plan to store it for thousands and millions of years.

In fact, archeologists are trying to figure out what signs to put on this waste for future generations. Because whole civilizations could turn over in the timeframe that this waste is still winding down with its half-life.

Year started with KUOW: 2006
Year started with KUOW: 2013