This site respects your privacy. GAP will not record your IP address or browser information. A detailed privacy statement can be found here.
Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Seattle Times: Hanford Plant Must be Built, but it Must be Built Right

May 25, 2006
Printer-friendly version

By GAP Nuclear Oversight Program Director Tom Carpenter and Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former senior policy adviser to the secretary of energy in the Clinton administration.

The Hanford nuclear site in Southeastern Washington is back in the news, this time regarding serious program breakdowns in the safety and inspection systems at the Department of Energy's Hanford waste-treatment plant, a project intended to process 55 million gallons of highly radioactive waste stored in 177 tanks, one-third of which have leaked a significant amount of waste into soil and groundwater that feeds the nearby Columbia River.

Over the past decade, several independent expert groups including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Academy of Sciences warned that DOE's haste to complete this project increased risks of nuclear accidents and project failure. Undeterred, DOE is rushing to terminate its environmental mission at Hanford within 30 years, even though this is the most expensive, complex and risky environmental project in the United States.

In this context, the Government Accountability Project released internal documents from Bechtel, the design and construction contractor for this project, that show DOE relaxed rules for important safety requirements in order to speed up construction.

Currently, the plant is being built using a process called "fast-tracking," or "design-build," which employs a method in which the plant is simultaneously designed and built. This means that DOE and Bechtel are rushing to build a first-of-a-kind, ultra-hazardous plant without first assuring the design will work. No private business would undertake such a risky strategy. However, the Hanford waste-treatment plant is funded by the taxpayer, and managed by an agency that regulates itself and, as a result, has a dismal history of project failure.

"Fast-tracking" has led to shoddy design and construction work, including the installation of a known defective vessel, called a scrubber vessel — an 8,000-gallon tank that is responsible for preventing radioactive and toxic waste and vapor from escaping into the environment. DOE and Bechtel both knew before it was installed that this vessel was designed using the wrong specifications. It was also installed after welding defects were discovered, yet the installation proceeded without fixing the defects. Bechtel was paid a $15 million fee for meeting this performance milestone despite the vessel's many defects and the lost time and money that went to fixing them.

At the same time, other serious mistakes have surfaced, such as underdesigning for an earthquake, failing to address pipe plugging, inadequate fireproofing, and failure to prevent excessive explosive hydrogen gas buildup. The facility as it sits now is of questionable integrity and indeterminate quality.

The state of Washington correctly points out that time is of the essence, and that the high-level nuclear-waste tanks are falling to pieces. As Gov. Christine Gregoire recently said on "60 Minutes," "We are running out of time."

Where the state appears to miss the boat, however, is on public, environmental and worker safety. Ecology Director Jay Manning was quoted on May 1 as saying, "The last thing that you should do in terms of public safety and efficiency is slow down construction" at the waste-treatment plant. It must occur to the state that a safe and operable facility is more important than a fast facility.

A waste-treatment facility riddled with design and construction flaws might, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2001, deliver an atmospheric dose of radiation comparable to that released from Chernobyl. Furthermore, unlike a nuclear power plant, the Hanford waste facility will not have a thick concrete containment to protect against a catastrophic radiation release. Rather, it will rely on a gas treatment and filter system, of which the scrubber vessel is key.

The problems at Hanford are attributable to an agency that has relinquished its project management and safety responsibilities to contractors. This is what helped create the huge mess at Hanford in the first place. We are not arguing that the plant be abandoned. To the contrary, there is an urgent need for work to continue, even accelerate. This plant must be built, but it must be built right.

This is why a House Appropriations subcommittee recently passed legislation requiring safety oversight of the waste-treatment plant by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This is a major step in the right direction and could assure the public and Congress that this nationally important project is constructed safely and in a timely manner — a goal we can all support.

Report waste, fraud or illegality Be a whistleblower
Sign Up for the Latest Whistleblower news

Connect with us: