Washington Nuclear Cleanup Project Under Scrutiny

The federal government's largest nuclear cleanup project is being called into question by some key players. Managers for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation's waste treatment plant say the design is deeply flawed and could endanger workers or the public. The plant in south central Washington state is designed to treat 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Now to the sprawling desert of eastern Washington state. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to millions of gallons of radioactive waste left over from World War II and the Cold War.

These days, it's the federal government's largest environmental cleanup project and it's become a big headache. As we hear from Anna King of the Northwest News Network, the problems center on a massive nuclear waste treatment plant.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: Builders didn't have the final blueprints when they broke ground on Hanford's treatment plant about 10 years ago. They still don't. It's a sprawling complex of high-rise buildings growing out of the desert sagebrush and sand.

The $12 billion facility is a little more than half-built, but it's still being designed. Scott Samuelson oversees the project for the Department of Energy.

SCOTT SAMUELSON: Design build is the course that was selected a long time ago with how to do this.

KING: Now, it's not clear if design build was the best plan. The hope was the design-as-you-build would help clean up the 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge faster, but now, federal watchdog agencies are calling into question the way the project's been handled. They're worried about key components of the plant, like its pipes and mixing tanks.

WALTER TAMOSAITIS: What could ultimately happen is that the plant won't operate and the plant ends up being a monument, an albatross, sitting on the Hanford horizon.

KING: That's Walter Tamosaitis. He used to lead a team tasked with solving some of the most complex engineering problems on the project, but Tamosaitis claims the government contractor he works for took him out of that position more than a year ago, after he raised concerns.

He says the plant's mixing tanks are unsafe.

TAMOSAITIS: The major things that can result is that you have a hydrogen explosion at the top of the tank and/or you have a uncontrolled nuclear reaction at the bottom of the tank.

KING: Right now, the waste sits in tank farms, as they're called. The exhaust systems emit an eerie hum. The sludge is the leftovers from making plutonium for bombs. Already, the tanks have leaked radioactive waste into the ground and they're just miles from the Columbia River.

Another possible problem with the plant is its piping system. The Department of Energy's Don Alexander is a top scientist on the project. He says experiments and data show that the plant's stainless steel pipes might leak.

DON ALEXANDER: On a scale of one to 10 with the hardest metal being a 10, the one that can resist erosion the best being a 10, the metals that were selected for the plant are about a two.

KING: Alexander says top managers haven't heeded his warnings quickly enough. The Energy Department has launched a formal investigation into his claim.

SAMUELSON: Right now, what we're doing is managing our way through that the best we can.

KING: Hanford project manager Scott Samuelson says these concerns won't slow down construction.

SAMUELSON: Even if you did it another way, you would still have discoveries along the way that you had to address.

KING: The Federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board plans a public hearing about the design and safety issues facing Hanford next month. Critics, including the safety board, say the longer the Department of Energy waits to change the design, the more expensive the project becomes.

For NPR News, I'm Anna King in Richland, Washington.

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