By: Pedro de la Torre III
Hanford’s 177 underground waste tanks store around two thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume, but they were never designed to be permanent solutions to the disposal of the byproducts of plutonium production. All of the 149 single-shell tanks are beyond their design life, and about a third of them have leaked dangerous chemical and radioactive waste into Hanford’s soil and groundwater. There has long been a near-consensus that vitrification—the process of mixing radioactive wastes with glass-forming materials that, when hardened, make the long-lasting waste easier to contain—is a necessary step in the process of cleaning Hanford up.
Unfortunately, the effort to design and construct a vitrification plant to treat Hanford’s waste has encountered serious challenges for more than 20 years. The timeline below highlights key reports by federal agencies and contractors identifying and investigating these issues.
Among other things, these documents provide valuable insights into the Waste Treatment Plant’s (WTP) ballooning budgets and mounting delays, as well as technical issues that, if left unresolved, could lead to an inoperable facility or even a major nuclear accident. Hanford’s WTP has also had a troublesome “safety culture,” including alleged retaliation against whistleblowers.
The Department of Energy has made progress in addressing some of the challenges examined by these reports. There is much left undone, however, in terms of both resolving technical issues and improving management of the WTP project.
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