The Department of Energy has failed to develop a detailed analysis of the costs and risks of a proposed plan to start operating part of the Hanford vitrification plant early, according to the DOE Office of Inspector General.
It issued a management alert Tuesday.
DOE has been considering starting operation of the Low Activity Waste Facility at the plant 15 months before the rest of the plant.
However, it told the DOE Office of Inspector General that its phased operations startup proposal, called the "2020 Vision One System," is on hold while technical issues are addressed and a new cost and schedule for the vitrification plant is established.
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Resolution of technical issues could change DOE's approach to waste pretreatment. But early startup of low activity waste treatment remains a prominent alternative and could move forward after the plant's technical issues are addressed, the report said.
The $12.2 billion vitrification plant is being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal starting in 2019, if the current deadline is met. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's weapons program.
The plant will separate the waste into high level and low activity radioactive waste streams at its Pretreatment Facility and then send the waste to the Low Activity Waste Facility or the High Level Waste Facility for glassification.
DOE has proposed in a plan called the "2020 Vision One System" that it start the Low Activity Waste Facility before the Pretreatment Facility is done. That would require a temporary pretreatment system to be set up in the Hanford tank farms and a temporary waste transport system built to deliver the waste from the tank farms directly to the Low Activity Waste Facility.
The proposal does offer some benefits, according to the DOE Office of Inspector General.
It would give Hanford workers early experience operating the plant and allow management to work out "the inevitable unforeseen challenges in a safer and more controlled manner," the management alert report said.
Starting part of the plant early would demonstrate DOE's commitment to cleaning up Hanford waste, the report said. The project has been plagued with delays and schedule revisions.
However, the proposal also carries significant risk that requires additional analysis, the report said.
Despite recommendations by two independent review teams, DOE has not developed a detailed analysis of the 2020 Vision costs, benefits and risks, the report said. Recommendations were made by the Tank Waste Subcommittee of the Environmental Management Advisory Board in June 2011 and the DOE Office of Environmental Management's Construction Project Review team two months later.
Without analyses of costs, benefits and risks, DOE might choose a course of action that would inadvertently delay completion of the vitrification plant project, the report said.
Because costs associated with early operation of the Low Activity Waste Facility are likely to be significant, DOE needs the best possible estimate of the costs before deciding whether to proceed with an early startup, the report said.
The technologies needed to pretreat waste before it leaves the tank farms have not been developed enough to realistically assess operational efficiencies and to show that they could be used safely. That leaves a significant risk that the technology may not perform as intended, the report said.
"This could result in operational delays and the need to perform additional development work or the development of acceptable alternative technologies," the report said.
The Office of Inspector General also is concerned that the process would need to be accelerated to issue permits for early operation of the Low Activity Waste Facility. Neither Bechtel National, which is building and starting up the plant, nor the Washington State Department of Ecology, which would issue the permits, have enough staff to accelerate the process, the report said.
DOE Hanford officials said they are not evaluating the 2020 Vision proposal now. However, they will complete a detailed business case analysis prior to a decision to feed waste directly to the Low Activity Waste Facility, they told the Office of Inspector General.