Energy secretary to move forward with Hanford vit plant

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldNovember 9, 2012 

Energy Secretary Steven Chu plans to move the Hanford vitrification plant project forward with new teams to take focused looks at technical issues and a separate evaluation of opportunities for more efficient or faster operations at the plant.

He made the announcement Thursday in a memo to employees of the Department of Energy's Hanford Office of River Protection.

Chu has taken a personal interest in resolving issues at the plant, assembling a hand-picked group of experts that he spent several days with at Hanford in September. They helped develop the plan announced Thursday to get the project on track.

DOE earlier said that it would not be able to build the plant for the $12.2 billion planned or have it operating as legally required by 2019 because of technical issues, some of them related to the safe and efficient operation of the plant.

The plant is being built to treat for disposal up to 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Construction on parts of the plant that will handle high-level radioactive waste has been slowed or stopped while technical issues are addressed.

"I am confident that with this increased focus on the resolution of technical challenges, the addition of expertise from academia, national laboratories and industry, and some additional analysis and testing, we will be able to resolve the remaining technical challenges and ensure the mission will be accomplished safely and efficiently," Chu said in the memo.

Technical issues have been "wrestled" into five groups and five new teams will drill down into the issues, said David Huizenga, senior adviser for the DOE Office of Environmental Management, which oversees Hanford work.

The teams will focus on finalizing the design of the vitrification plant, said Langdon Holton, of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, one of Chu's experts.

"The secretary wants a path forward in the next few months," Huizenga said.

However, some of the work to resolve technical issues could take several years to close out, Holton said. Among the most time consuming will be a new plan to do full-scale mixing testing of some of the plant's tanks that will hold high-level radioactive waste rather than the large-scale testing DOE agreed to two years ago.

A new high-bay laboratory -- which will be donated to Washington State University Tri-Cities -- was built for the large-scale testing and now tanks that later will be moved to the vitrification plant will be tested outside the building.

No major changes to parts of the vitrification plant already built are expected as the design is finalized, Holton said. The design changes instead should affect components of the plant yet to be built or installed, he said. Construction started on the plant in July 2002 with plans to build portions of the plant as the design progressed.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire is encouraged to see that DOE has a "comprehensive and focused grasp of the problem areas" and appreciates Chu's commitment to the state, according to a statement from her office.

"It is essential that the vit plant come on line safely to allow the Department of Energy to meet its cleanup obligations," the statement said.

Gregoire said in September that she was determined to see the vitrification plant on a stable path to treating waste before her last term ends in January.

The five scientific teams being formed to address technical issues will draw on the expertise of employees of DOE and its contractor, Bechtel National, and experts from industry, academia, DOE national laboratories and the DOE Office of Science.

The teams will address:

w Full-scale vessel testing to address their design functions, rather than using computer modeling or testing at a smaller scale.

w Ways to address problems that could happen over the 40-year life of the plant in black cells, or areas too radioactive for workers to enter once operations begin.

w Issues related to insufficient mixing of waste that could allow a buildup of flammable gases or a buildup of plutonium particles, creating the risk of an unplanned nuclear reaction.

w Erosion and corrosion of tanks and piping in the plant over its lifetime.

w Opportunities to "precondition" the waste before it is sent to the vitrification plant to make sure it's in a form the plant can treat.

A decade into construction of the plant, technical issues still need to be addressed as DOE learns more about the complicated nature of the waste now held in underground tanks awaiting treatment, Huizenga said.

As waste has been retrieved from older tanks, more is learned about the waste, Holton said. For instance, DOE was aware of how much plutonium was in some tanks, but not the particular forms of plutonium until the last year, he said.

In addition some computer models, particularly for computational fluid dynamics, have not proved as capable as DOE had hoped, Huizenga said.

The second part of the new plan for the vitrification plant will focus on opportunities to speed up waste treatment or make it more efficient as the plant begins operating.

A separate team will look at options, such as getting more radioactive waste glassified, or vitrified, within each canister of high-level or low-activity waste produced at the plant.

The vitrification plant was not planned to be large enough to treat all the low-activity waste that will be separated out of the tank waste waiting to be treated, and the team will look at options for treating that waste. The plant as designed may be able to treat only one-third of the low-activity waste.

The team also will look at options to start parts of the plant early or to dispose of some waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a national repository in New Mexico, without treating it at the vitrification plant.

"Although there are challenges that remain, we have the right people working on the right issues and will make sure they have the expertise needed to resolve these issues," Chu said in the memo.

Bechtel also announced Thursday that it would be bringing more corporate support to the vitrification plant project while technical teams address final technical issues.

Amos Avidan, senior vice president and manager of engineering and technology for Bechtel Corp., and Greg Ashley, principal vice president and president of Bechtel Nuclear Power, have been assigned to the technical teams.

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