Hanford Plant Safety Woes Mount

Monday, March 26, 2012 @ 04:03 PM gHale

Still having major safety issues at a plant that should rid the Hanford nuclear reservation of millions of gallons of radioactive waste, engineers still have no idea just how much waste it will actually be able to treat.

The $12.2 billion plant originally was on tap to dispose of 53 million gallons of nuclear waste, officials told a federal panel late last week.

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During a rare public hearing last Thursday, the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a nuclear-oversight panel appointed by the White House, grilled Hanford contractors and Department of Energy officials about their efforts to build a plant to turn the toxic-nuclear slop in 177 underground tanks into glass after a half-century of bomb making.

Even though the project is half-built, engineers said they still haven’t figured out how, once it is operational, they will keep waste stirred up so it doesn’t spark a nuclear chain reaction.

Officials also are still working out ways to avoid hydrogen explosions in miles of piping and prevent radioactive waste from eating its way through metal tanks in a building that will be so polluted that no human could get inside and make repairs during the 40-year life of the plant.

The safety issues and the insistence by Hanford contractors in recent years they have everything under control infuriated the safety board and other Hanford watchdogs. Safety-board staff member Steven Stokes pointed out the risk of corrosion was an issue as far back as 2001.

“It’s frustrating for us that issues like erosion and corrosion are still coming up at this phase,” said Suzanne Dahl, with the state Department of Ecology’s nuclear-waste program.

Contractors said their search for solutions hasn’t been easy or always gone well. Thomas Patterson, engineering manager for the plant, said because waste in each of Hanford’s underground tanks is a weird concoction of hundreds of chemicals and radionuclides, some problems “could come up again and again and again every time we learn new information about what’s in the tank farm.”

Their answers angered those who have complained that lead contractor Bechtel National and its subcontractors are way behind because their instinct has been to bury safety concerns — and punish those who raise them.

Walt Tamosaitis, a nuclear engineer who works for Hanford contractor URS but says he ended up demoted in 2010 for raising safety concerns, told the board the proposed technical fixes he heard Thursday are years too late.

“I believe some of the answers you’ve heard today would be OK, if this were the first or second year of design,” he said. “But it’s been a decade.”

Without oversight by the safety board, Tamosaitis said, Bechtel “would have proceeded to build a plant that would not work.”

Part of the problem now is the strange mix of waste in each tank will dictate how dangerous the plant is to operate.

So to make sure the plant is safe, engineers may have to rule out processing some volume of the waste, either because it contains high volumes of plutonium or because the mix of chemicals and gases is corrosive or explosive.

That means some as-yet unproven new technologies will have to deal with some of Hanford’s waste.

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