Recent Reports Spur Controversy Over Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant

Jan 24, 2013

  RICHLAND, Wash. – News out of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation can sometimes sound like just one critical report after another. In fact, last week a federal watchdog agency said Hanford’s massive waste treatment plant is in jeopardy. Several developments lately have intensified the debate over this question: Should a massive federal waste treatment plant move ahead or stop to fix its nagging technical problems?

Hanford’s radioactive waste treatment plant is so big, expensive and complex -- it’s gigantic really -- that the government has been building and designing it at the same time. Most now agree -- that approach is fraught with problems. The question is what to do.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office had one damning report. And a former engineering manager on the project had another.

Tom Carpenter heads a Seattle-based watchdog group. He says the Department of Energy isn’t coming forward with plans to fix the problems that have been raised over and again.

"We’re all focused on the future," Carpenter says. "It’s like what steps are you going to take in the future to make sure that these issues are addressed openly, transparently and in a manner that satisfies the technical community.”

Others say the Energy Department can still get some complex parts of the plant back on the right track. Dirk Dunning is a chemical engineer with Oregon’s Department of Energy. Dunning is pleased by one recent development. The U.S. Energy Department announced plans to do full-scale testing on waste mixing vessels that have been under technical scrutiny.

“It’s not something as simple as scaling that up to the size of a doing it in a coffee cup in a lab and then scaling it up to a bathtub size and then scaling that up to a full plant," Dunning explains. "It’s much more difficult than that.”

Meanwhile Washington Congressman Doc Hastings’ spokeswoman Jessica Gleason aired some frustration with the Energy Department. She said the agency has yet “to provide basic details about what work will be done to test and resolve technical issues, how much this work will cost or how long it will take to complete.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu hasn't declared whether or not he’s staying on for President Obama’s second term. He’s assembled a team to guide solutions to the plant’s design.

Still to come: yet another federal report. This time from an independent oversight and enforcement branch of the Department of Energy. It’s currently finalizing a review of Hanford’s waste plant project and work by the government’s lead contractor Bechtel.