The Energy Department is building a facility to transform radioactive… (Department of Energy )
RICHLAND, WASH. — On a wind-swept plateau, underground steel tanks that hold the nation's most deadly radioactive waste are slowly rotting. The soil deep under the desert brush is being fouled with plutonium, cesium and other material so toxic that it could deliver a lethal dose of radiation to a nearby person in minutes.
The aging tanks at the former Hanford nuclear weapons complex contain 56 million gallons of sludge, the byproduct of several decades of nuclear weapons production, and they represent one of the nation's most treacherous environmental threats.
Energy Department officials have repeatedly assured the public that they have the advanced technology needed to safely dispose of the waste. An industrial city has been under development here for 24 years, designed to transform the sludge into solid glass and prepare it for permanent burial.
But with $13 billion already spent, there are serious doubts that the highly complex technology will even work or that the current plan can clean up all the waste. Alarmed at warnings raised by outside experts and some of the project's own engineers, Department of Energy officials last year ordered a halt to construction on the most important parts of the waste treatment plant.
"They are missing one important target after another," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It feels like we are going around in circles."
Over the last two years, technical problems on the project have multiplied. Concern has grown that explosive hydrogen gas could build up inside the treatment plant's pipes and tanks. Clumps of plutonium could form inside the plant's mixing tanks, some engineers now say, potentially causing a spontaneous nuclear reaction.
A federal oversight board found that employee safety concerns had been discounted, while the Energy Department's inspector general reported an estimate that more than a third of the plant's nuclear safety reviews -- required on every pipe, valve and device -- were never conducted.
Senior engineers at Hanford have voiced similar worries.
Gary Brunson, then the federal engineering chief at Hanford, recommended a year ago that the prime contractor, Bechtel National, be removed as the plant designer, citing 34 instances of serious safety and engineering errors. Two other senior managers have also publicly said the project's technology is flawed and that safety concerns have been disregarded.
Federal officials and executives at Bechtel downplay the risk of a nuclear accident and say they are making important progress on a difficult job.
"We have a lot of challenges, but I am confident," said Bill Hamel, the federal manager who is directing construction of the waste treatment plant. "This is a very large, very complex facility. We continue to make progress."
This month, however, the Energy Department formally offered a more cautious prognosis. It notified Washington state officials that it might miss some of the most important project deadlines, promised three years ago under a consent agreement reached to address earlier lapses. Now, 14 of 19 key milestones are in jeopardy, the department has acknowledged.
But endless delays are hardly an option -- not when a million gallons of sludge from about a third of the 177 underground tanks have leaked into the soil, and some of it has reached aquifers under the plateau.
The Columbia River, the West's biggest waterway, is seven miles downhill from the waste and, under a worst-case scenario, could be hit by the plumes in as little as 50 years, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.
"It is really disappointing," said Suzanne Dahl, who runs the department's Hanford office.
In late September, Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz tried to intervene with a vague plan for accelerating the project. He offered options that included the development of a new treatment plant and a change in the chemical process for treating some of the liquid waste.
But Wyden, among other critics, dismissed it, calling it "a plan for a plan."
Many of the problems stem from the decision to launch construction of the plant even before engineers had completed the design. The job of turning waste as thick as peanut butter into glass is at the leading edge of nuclear chemistry, a job made difficult by the complex mixture of wastes that were fed into the underground tanks by some of the nation's largest industrial corporations under a cloak of government secrecy.
The basic plan is to pump the waste into a pre-treatment plant, a factory larger than a football field and 12 stories tall, that would filter and chemically separate the waste into two streams of high- and low-level radioactivity. Then, two other plants would "vitrify," or glassify, the waste. One would produce highly radioactive glass destined for a future geological repository, and the other a lower radioactive glass that could be buried at Hanford.