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The Nation

Errors, Costs Stall Nuclear Waste Project

Radioactive sludge that threatens the Columbia River is still untouched after years of setbacks. The job's complexity has taxed U.S. expertise.

September 04, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

The problems at Hanford reflect a troubling reality about the U.S. nuclear workforce: Its skill has declined over the last several decades as nuclear construction wound down, said William Elkins, Bechtel's top officer managing the Hanford construction.

"There is no question we underestimated the amount of atrophy, how much the nuclear supply industry had atrophied ... how difficult it would be to find the people with the required skills," he said.

Academic experts agree the U.S. is losing its expertise in nuclear engineering. There are 35 universities in the U.S. with nuclear engineering departments, half as many as in the 1970s, said Joonhong Ahn, a UC Berkeley expert on nuclear waste. And enrollment has plunged, said Jim Stubbins, chairman of nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Bechtel is still trying to determine whether the waste treatment plant could stand up to the ground motion of a magnitude 9 earthquake on the Washington coast a couple of hundred miles away.

The issue was raised in 2004 by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent federal agency that oversees Energy Department sites. As engineers examined the issue, they realized the ground motion at Hanford could be 38% greater than they had anticipated.

Critics, including board Chairman A.J. Eggenberger, say Bechtel and the Energy Department took two years to act on that information, allowing the problem to mushroom. So far, it appears Bechtel designed safety margins large enough so that no walls will have to be rebuilt. But costly equipment will have to be upgraded, and engineers are still studying the issue.

Rep. Hobson held a blistering oversight hearing on the problems in April and then wrote new constraints on the program in the 2007 appropriations bill. He would require Bechtel to complete 90% of the engineering on the plant before it could resume construction, and he wants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee the project.

The Energy Department and Bechtel have resisted, saying those ideas would not help the situation. Bechtel, which is already facing a demand from the government to forfeit $48 million in fees, says its professional reputation has been tarnished.

"We don't like any inference that we are soaking the taxpayer or don't know what we are doing or are lining our pockets," Elkins said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

But Hobson is impatient with Bechtel's concerns about its reputation and with its explanations, particularly its claim that nuclear technology has eroded in the U.S.

"Of all the people in the world, they have the most expertise," Hobson said. "They took their best people and put them on other projects in the world. They took this one for granted."

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