The mess gets worse at Hanford’s nuclear site

Print

The government’s multi-billion-dollar effort to clean up the nation’s largest nuclear dump has become its own dysfunctional mess.

For more than two decades, the government has worked to dispose of 56 million gallons of toxic nuclear and chemical waste stored in underground, leak-prone steel tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Site in southeastern Washington State.

But progress has been slow, the project’s budget is rising by billions of dollars, and a long-running technical dispute has sown ill will between members of the project’s senior engineering staff, the Energy Department and its lead contractors.

The waste is a legacy of the Cold War, when the site housed nuclear reactors churning out radioactive plutonium for thousands of American atomic bombs. To clean up the site — the largest such environmental undertaking in the country — the Department of Energy (DOE) started building a factory 12 years ago to encase the nuclear leftovers in stable glass for long-term storage.

But today, construction of the factory is only two-thirds complete after billions of dollars in spending, leaving partially constructed buildings and heavy machinery scattered across the 65-acre desert construction site, 12 miles from the Columbia River.

Technical personnel have expressed concerns about the plant’s ability to operate safely, and say the government and its contractors have tried to discredit them, and in some cases harassed and punished them. Experts also say that some of the tanks have already leaked radioactive waste into the groundwater below, and worry that the contamination is now making its way to the river, a major regional source of drinking water.

Some lawmakers say Hanford has been an early — and so far dismaying — test of whether Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, previously an MIT physics professor, can turn the problem-plagued Energy Department around through improved scientific rigor and better management of its faltering, multi-billion dollar projects. They have accused his aides of standing by while a well-known whistleblower was dismissed last month.

Meanwhile, DOE officials are now considering spending an extra $2 billion to $3 billion to help make the wastes safer for treatment. Doing so would delay the cleanup’s completion for years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated in December. DOE is already strapped for cash, due to the impact of the budget sequestration, likely to take billions of dollars out of its budget.

In an Oct. 9 letter to Moniz, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., demanded that he take new steps to ensure that the project’s technical and safety experts are well-treated. Four organizations have reviewed their complaints, he said, and “all have agreed that the project is deeply troubled, and all have affirmed the underlying technical problems.”