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Nuke Waste Cleanup Delayed Again As Costs Double

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Ethan Barton Managing Editor

Radioactive waste won’t be treated at an aging South Carolina nuclear site until 2018 – nearly a decade later than planned and for more than double the original price, a government watchdog reported Wednesday.

The Salt Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina was supposed to be finished by 2008 at a cost of $900 million to treat 37 million gallons of radioactive waste stored underground, according to a Department of Energy inspector general report.

Energy Department officials extended the deadline to October 2015, but now predict it won’t be completed until December 2018 at a cost of $2.3 billion.

The project, which is contracted to Parsons, “is now nine years behind schedule and nearly $1.4 billion over budget,” the report said. “Salt waste removal and treatment is … instrumental for the successful completion of the liquid waste mission and overall environmental cleanup at Savannah River.”

The waste, which is a byproduct of the materials the 1950s-era site generated for nuclear weapons, is “considered to be the single largest environmental threat in the state,” the report said. “However, construction is currently only 84 percent complete, and the remaining 16 percent of construction activity is significantly more complex.”

One cause of delay was that the Energy Department had to redesign the facility in 2005 to include a barrier that would prevent radioactive material from leaking in the case of a catastrophe, such as an earthquake.

Also, officials found that the pipes used for drains weren’t welded properly. “About one-third of the welds made by an equipment supplier had to be repaired due to poor quality work,” the report said.

Even after the construction is finished, waste treatment may face further delays. For example, the salt waste facility will rely on existing components, which will need modifications to account for the increased flow of radioactive waste.

“However, these necessary modifications and requirements are being postponed due to budget reductions, further jeopardizing the successful start-up of the SWPF when construction is complete,” the report said.

Meanwhile, the Energy Department deployed an interim facility that can process about 3 million gallons of salt waste per year.

“Due to budget constraints,” the interim facility “was slated to process only about 1.3 million gallons of salt waste per year,” the report said. That’s “an average of 40 percent of its current capacity.”

But the interim facility only processed 551,000 gallons in 2014 – less than 20 percent of its capacity.

The Energy Department also suspended its plans to create a Small Column Ion Exchange system, which would likely be a cost efficient waste treatment process. Instead, officials spent the money to deploy the program on testing and developing a new chemical that would make both the interim and the final facilities more efficient.

Additionally, an August 2014 review reported that using two SCIX units in conjunction with the interim facility could clean up the waste 2 and 1/2 years quicker than the Salt Waste facility and for $1 billion less.

Energy Department officials argued that the review only evaluated the costs.

One official “told us that the department wanted to minimize risk by using existing technology,” the report said. “They added that economics alone was not the basis for their decision and indicated that they would examine other options like SCIX if SWPF project delays continue.”

If the Salt Waste Facility can’t process 9 to 12 million gallons of waste per year by 2019, or if there are operating issues, the Energy Department will reconsider the alternative.

DOE “should maintain a rigorous, intensive project management oversight regime to closely monitor construction progress,” the report said. “Should this process identify even potential additional delays or cost overruns, a fresh look at the viabilities of the SWPF should be undertaken.”

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