YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — A new cost estimate and construction schedule for a massive waste plant being built at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site will be delayed at least a year as workers try to resolve serious technical problems raised by whistleblowers about design and safety, the U.S. Department of Energy said Tuesday.
The announcement seemed certain to spark new fears about the long-term viability of the project that has already been the subject of numerous lawsuits and remains a top priority of Washington and Oregon despite its ballooning budget and delays.
The $12.3 billion waste treatment plant is currently scheduled to begin operating in 2019, under a consent decree with Washington state, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department. The plant, long considered the cornerstone of the cleanup at Hanford, is being built to convert highly radioactive and toxic waste into a stable glass form for permanent disposal underground.
However, several workers have raised concerns about safety, particularly about erosion and corrosion in tanks and piping inside the plant. The issues are significant because the problem areas are inside so-called black cells, where high radioactivity levels will make the areas inaccessible for maintenance and repairs after the plant begins operating.
The Energy Department and its contractor hired to build the plant, Bechtel National Inc., have been working to develop a new price tag and construction schedule for the plant in light of those problems. But the Energy Department announced in a conference call that the new estimates will be delayed at least a year as it embarks on additional tests to resolve the issues.
The tests are expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
Information gained from those tests could provide a higher level of confidence that the plant can perform as originally conceived for its 40-year life, said Dave Huizenga, senior adviser for the agency's Office of Environmental Management.
"We are committed to ultimately bringing this facility on line and having it operate in the long term in a safe and efficient manner," he said.
Huizenga declined to speculate on how much more construction will cost or how long the plant will be delayed.
A massive undertaking, the plant will stand 12 stories tall and be the size of four football fields once completed. Design is 85 percent complete, and construction is more than 50 percent finished.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has been outspoken about seeing the project completed, did not immediately comment on the announcement.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret project to build the atomic bomb. The site produced plutonium for the world's first atomic blast and for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.
Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades.
Central to that cleanup is removing millions of gallons of highly toxic, radioactive stew — enough to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools — from aging, underground tanks. Some of those tanks have leaked, threatening the groundwater and neighboring Columbia River.
Building a plant to convert that waste into a solid, stable form has been among the most challenging tasks at the site. The project has involved numerous technical problems, delays and cost increases. More recently, several workers raised safety concerns and two filed a lawsuit as whistleblowers, saying they were targeted for reprisals for raising questions.
In addition to erosion and corrosion, problems remain unresolved with adequate mixing of the waste.
"We're all, frankly, disappointed that this waste stream is so complicated and it's causing us these kind of issues and these kind of problems," Huizenga said. "But I think we're addressing these with a group of technical experts and our contractor. We're trying to look for multiple different ways of solving the problems."
The agency spends roughly one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup — about $2 billion each year — at Hanford. Nearly a third of that goes to construction of the plant, the cost of which has grown from $4.3 billion to $12.3 billion.
Late last year, the Energy Department announced that the plant will cost as much as $900 million more and could take longer to build.
Then in March, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board ruled that the agency lacks necessary information to resolve some technical problems and establish a complete safety plan.
Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a group representing the whistleblowers, called Tuesday's development "huge" and said he's glad the Energy Department is paying attention to safety issues that are far more important than the cost and schedule.
"You just can't help but wonder what took them so long," he said.
Now, the Energy Department and its contractors must work to rebuild their credibility and salvage the project following months of friction, he said.
"This isn't a situation where we're trying to stop a facility. We want to see it proceed," he said. "But we want it to proceed safely."