A Fukushima-like explosion could result if a Department of Energy project to treat nuclear waste continues to fail – mostly due to government and contractor mismanagement – despite the $19 billion it has cost since 1989.
The Hanford Site in Washington State began operating in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. It ultimately included nine reactors and generated 56 million gallons of radioactive waste by the time operations were closed in 1987.
Most of the $19 billion has gone to contractors to treat the hazardous and increasingly volatile material, but “to date, no waste has been treated,” according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
“There are lots of question marks, and they’re very expensive question marks,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group, Tom Carpenter. He said the project has essentially become a perpetual check for contractors who face no consequences for failure.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Tuesday he objects to the Senate’s consideration of an Energy Department nominee until the treatment projects’ issues and the firing of two whistleblowers are addressed.
He also requested in March that the agency’s inspector general investigate how the Energy Department’s current contractor spent millions of tax dollars on work that may not have been done.
Multiple treatment projects have been initiated and abandoned, causing repeated increases in budget and time frames, according to GAO. Numerous design and construction flaws have required expensive and lengthy corrections.
Such delays are extremely dangerous. The risk of explosion increases as hydrogen – an extremely flammable gas – builds in tanks used to contain the radioactive waste.
The most recent measurement of one underground high-level waste tank showed a high risk of explosion or fire due to an increased concentration of hydrogen, according to an April 2015 Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report.
Such an explosion could spread radioactive material across Washington state and into Oregon, Idaho, and possibly even Utah and Canada, depending on the size of the explosion and the wind conditions, Carpenter said. He compared it to the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant that was devastated by an epic tidal wave.
The Energy Department declined to comment on the risk of explosion at the Hanford facility.
Many tanks containing the nuclear waste are leaking. The Energy Department had to treat “over 8 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater,” a department spokeswoman said.
Despite such danger, the Energy Department hasn’t conducted enough oversight of contractors hired to treat the tank waste, allowing them to repeatedly fail for decades, according to multiple accountability office reports.
“The results have been lots of failures,” Carpenter said. The treatment plant “has so many flaws … that it’s unclear that it’s going to work at all.”
For example, the Energy Department proposed two new facilities in 2013 to help speed up the treatment process. The accountability office, however, reported that the $1 billion estimate was unreliable and that the proposition was tailored specifically for is current contractor, Bechtel National, Inc.
That came after Bechtel failed to complete its project by the 2011 deadline and reported that it wouldn’t be able to meet the extension to 2019.
“We negotiated more contracts with them and gave them more money,” Carpenter said.
Washington state officials filed suit against the Energy Department last September after being notified that the 2019 date would not be reached. A court date has not yet been set to determine a new completion date.
Also, Wyden requested that the Energy Department’s inspector general investigate how Bechtel spent $277 million on potentially unperformed work.
Contractor managers have also failed to ensure that equipment used for treatment facilities are up to safety standards to prevent nuclear waste from corroding the material, according to multiple accountability reports.
“If you read these reports, they point out the same problems,” Carpenter said. “What are they doing to show us they’re doing anything different other than the same incompetence, mismanagement and abuse?”
Despite the failures, there haven’t been repercussions for contractors or government officials.
“No one seems to be held to account for it,” Carpenter. “No one’s lost their job. No one’s gone to jail.”
That excludes whistleblowers fired for reporting safety concerns of some of the projects, including Walt Tomasaitis and Donna Busche.
In response to the terminations and the consistent failures at Hanford, Wyden announced that he refuses to move on the nomination of Monica Regalbuto for Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Management.
“Until I see corrective action – concrete action – from the Department of Energy to address both the whistleblower issue and the treatment of radioactive waste, I am going to be objecting to the Senate proceeding to the nomination of Dr. Regalbuto,” Wyden said at a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing.
Initially, Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department came to an agreement in 1989 that included deadlines for when certain projects would be created.
“It’s been modified hundreds and hundreds of times,” Carpenter said.
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