Hanford quality issues could put public at risk, says a federal inspector. DOE disagrees

An inconsistent program to ensure that items bought for the $18 billion Hanford vitrification plant meet quality standards could put the plant, workers or the public at risk, according to a new report.

It also could cost taxpayers money to resolve issues and concerns, said an audit report released Monday by the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General.

The report called for improved quality assurance oversight by DOE Hanford officials of its vitrification plant contractor, Bechtel National.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management, which is responsible for the Hanford site, agreed that there was room for improvement.

The melter bays at the vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility will be used to heat radioactive and chemical wastes and glass-forming materials to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit to create solid glass forms for long-term storage.

But it strongly disagreed that the issues and concerns raised in the audit call into question the safe operation of the vitrification plant.

The Office of Environmental Management “firmly stands behind the safety of the items,” it told the Office of the Inspector General.

Quality issues not new

The report released Monday is at least the third report in recent years by the DOE Office of Inspector General raising concerns about quality assurance at the Hanford plant.

The most recent report looks at a process used because DOE and Bechtel have had trouble finding suppliers with nuclear safety qualifications to make sure items they supply have the high safety standards needed for use in a nuclear facility like the vitrification plant.

vit effluent management facility
Employees at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s Waste Treatment Plant, or vitrification plant, lower a rebar curtain into the Effluent Management Facility. The facility will be needed to start treating low-activity radioactive waste as soon as 2022. Courtesy Bechtel National

The plant is being built to treat much of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left in underground tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation from producing plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

With not enough vendors with nuclear safety qualifications, individual purchases can instead be verified as meeting nuclear safety standards through an exacting process called commercial grade dedication.

But the audit found that weaknesses in DOE’s commercial grade dedication program “limit its ability to provide reasonable assurance that items and services meet the requirements for safe operation.”

Report recommends complex-wide check

“Specifically, this could lead to subcontractors supplying parts and services that do not meet regulatory requirements or quality assurance expectations,” the audit report said. “Commercial grade dedicated items are relied upon to prevent or mitigate a release of radioactive material in an accident scenario.”

In one example, the audit found that a silicone sealant used to repair a leak on sensors in the ventilation system for the vitrification plant’s Low activity Waste Facility did not have commercial grade dedication approval after an initial test of the sensor failed.

Piping is installed between the major nuclear facilities at the Waste Treatment Plant, or vitrification plant, at the Hanford nuclear reservation in late winter. Bechtel National

Among other issues, the supplier did not use the sealant that Bechtel required.

In another example, DOE Hanford officials found issues with the commercial grade survey for emergency turbine generators. Correcting the problem will cost about $60,000, the audit report said.

The audit recommended that a handbook be developed to ensure consistent implementation of commercial grade dedication across the DOE complex.

It also called for DOE to see if commercial grade dedication issues found at the Hanford vitrification plant and a similar plant at its Savannah River, S.C., site’s Salt Waste Processing Plant extended to other DOE facilities.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.