Antinuclear

Australian news, and some related international items

Secrecy, delays, budget problems as USA tries to clean up Hanford, the most radioactively polluted site in the nation.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in those 177 underground tanks at this remote decommissioned nuclear production site near the Columbia River in Benton County

Those leak-prone tanks are arguably the most radiologically contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere.

At least 1 million gallons of radioactive liquids have leaked into the ground, seeping into the aquifer 200 feet below and then into the Columbia River, roughly seven miles away. Since the mid-1990s, Hanford’s plans involve mixing the waste  in the tanks with benign melted glass and then storing it in glass logs.

Today, the project’s budget is at least $17 billion, and the first glassification plant for low-activity waste is scheduled to start up in late 2023. So far, the federal government has spent $11 billion on the glassification project, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative agency of Congress.

That one plant, however, will only handle 40% to 50% of the low-activity wastes, depending on who is doing the estimating. A second low-activity waste plant or a stil-to-be-determined new approach is needed to the remaining wastes.is What will happen to the rest of the waste is still up for debate.

All of the single-shell tanks and the majority of the double-shell tanks are way past their design lives

Cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford: Secrecy, delays and budget debates

A plan to turn radioactive waste into glass logs has raised a lot of questions, many of which don’t appear to have public answers.
CrossCut, by John Stang, August 16, 2021 Stephen Wiesman has worked for about three decades on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s project to convert the radioactive waste in its huge underground tanks into safer glass logs.

Although he’s retired now and involved in an advisory capacity, he understands the project — and its ongoing challenges — better than almost anyone.

Wiesman sees this task with a mix of cautious optimism, frustration, sympathy for the people dealing with its complexities, and a deep belief that the tank wastes must be dealt with. “There isn’t an emotion that I haven’t felt,” he said.

The project faces a cluster of challenges: financial, technical and political. And the secrecy around the plans to solve these issues makes it difficult for anyone to gauge whether the most polluted spot in the nation will ever become a benign stain on the landscape of eastern Washington.  

Wiesman said a retired Oregon state official who also has about 30 years invested in the glassification project recently told him: ”We’ve never been so close to treating the tank wastes, and never so far from getting it started.”

A Hanford engineer since 1980, Wiesman helped create the Office of Protection, the Department of Energy’s unit in charge of dealing with the nuclear waste stored in those tanks, serving as a senior technical adviser since the late 1990s.

Now 75 and retired since 2012, Wiesman is on the Hanford Advisory Board, which represents environmentalists, Tri-Citians, tribes, health officials, business interests and governments from across the Northwest. Currently, Wiesman is the board’s chairman. 

Hanford dates back to late 1942, when it became a super-secret World War II site to create plutonium for the first atomic bomb exploded — in New Mexico and later over Nagasaki, Japan. The nuclear reservation continued that mission during the Cold War and through 1987.

During four decades of production, uranium rods and other nuclear waste were stored in 149 single-shell tanks, of which at least 68 have since sprung leaks. Hanford added 28 safer double-shell tanks and transferred the liquid wastes into them.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in those 177 underground tanks at this remote decommissioned nuclear production site near the Columbia River in Benton County. 

Those leak-prone tanks are arguably the most radiologically contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere.

At least 1 million gallons of radioactive liquids have leaked into the ground, seeping into the aquifer 200 feet below and then into the Columbia River, roughly seven miles away. Since the mid-1990s, Hanford’s plans involve mixing the waste  in the tanks with benign melted glass and then storing it in glass logs.

The U.S. Department of Energy declined to provide anyone to be interviewed for this story, and refused a Crosscut request for a tour of the complex. However, DOE provided written answers to our questions. Bechtel, the primary contractor on the glassification project, deferred questions to DOE.

Busted budgets and deadlines

The original $4 billion glassification plant was supposed to be ready by 2009, but both budgets and deadlines have been busted several times over the past decades.

Today, the project’s budget is at least $17 billion, and the first glassification plant for low-activity waste is scheduled to start up in late 2023. So far, the federal government has spent $11 billion on the glassification project, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative agency of Congress.

That one plant, however, will only handle 40% to 50% of the low-activity wastes, depending on who is doing the estimating. A second low-activity waste plant or a stil-to-be-determined new approach is needed to the remaining wastes.is What will happen to the rest of the waste is still up for debate.

After 2023, a second low-activity waste treatment plant, as well as a high-level waste treatment facility, will still need to be built. Other than a vague target of the mid-2030s to start the high-level waste melter, the federal government has yet to release a detailed plan for these next steps, including when the work is expected to be completed.

“The department cannot project with certainty when the (pretreatment) and (high-level-waste) facilities will be completed,” said a 2019 DOE letter to the Washington Department of Ecology.

For the past two years, the state of Washington and the Department of Energy have been in secret “holistic talks” about the next steps in the glassification project. Both sides have agreed not to publicly discuss the talks until they are finished.

Originally, that legal deadline to finish glassification was 2019. Right now, Hanford’s legal target is removing all the waste from the single-shell tanks and closing those tanks by 2043 and closing the double-shell tanks by 2052. DOE has moved those targets back to 2069, a date not reflected in the its current cleanup agreements with the state of Washington, according to a 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office.

“It bothers me because I thought we would be making high-level glass by now,” Wiesman said.

“It’s not clear whether the high-level waste plant will ever operate,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a watchdog organization. Carpenter has been a leader in Hanford watchdog groups since the mid-1980s. 

Another problem still to be resolved: What happens to the glass logs after they are created? They were supposed to be stored permanently in an underground tunnel complex at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Faced with strong bipartisan opposition from Nevada’s congressional delegation, Congress has not appropriated money to Yucca Mountain since 2010, stalling that project indefinitely. 

Technical problems haunt the project

All of the single-shell tanks and the majority of the double-shell tanks are way past their design lives. So far, only one double-shell tank has sprung a leak in its inner wall, and can no longer be used.

Since the early 1990s, Hanford has explored both glassifying and a process called grouting to deal with the tank wastes. By 1993, DOE settled on glassifying — a process called vitrification.

Dubbed the “vit plant,” this project has been jinxed since the beginning. The original contractor, BNFL Inc., was fired, and Bechtel took over. DOE fired its first manager and exiled the second to a smaller project in Tennessee, after each argued that the original $4 billion budget was not enough.

Since then, technical problems have mushroomed and, as the managers predicted, so have the costs. 

The 2021 GAO report said DOE believes there is a 95% chance that Hanford will run out of space in its 27 remaining double-shell tanks before the next steps happen. If leaks occur in more double-shell tanks, that could add several years of delays to finishing glassification and may create further problems.

“What are you going to do if there is a huge leak?” Carpenter asks.

It would take seven years and $1.5 billion to build four 1 million gallon double-shell tanks, the GAO reported. Since 2018, the Hanford Advisory Board has been pushing DOE to get started on this contingency plan.

“DOE officials agreed that building more [double-shell tanks] could be time-consuming but said that doing so is not necessary since DOE plans to begin treating certain tank waste in 2022, which will create more [double-shell tank] space,” the 2021 GAO report said. 

Despite what it told the GAO, in its written response to Crosscut, DOE said thorough testing has shown “the double-shell tanks remain fit for service and are likely to have many decades of useful life.”

DOE plans to keep 1.2 million gallons of tank space empty to handle emergencies. Once the low-activity waste treatment plant goes into operation, DOE expects to glassify 1 million gallons of waste a year, which is about what one underground tank can hold. 

“Spending resources on creating new double-shell tanks at this time, when adequate space exists, diverts critical resources from the long-term solution to tank waste at Hanford,” DOE’s statement said…………………………………………. https://crosscut.com/environment/2021/08/cleaning-nuclear-waste-hanford-secrecy-delays-and-budget-debates

August 17, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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