Vit plant hearings planned in Kennewick

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board will visit the Tri-Cities this week for a rare meeting outside Washington, D.C., to take a close look at the operational safety and efficiency of the Hanford vitrification plant.

The Department of Energy says it is at the pivot point on the $12.3 billion project as efforts are transitioning from design and construction to construction and commissioning of the plant. The plant is being built to turn up to 53 million gallons of radioactive waste left from defense production of plutonium at Hanford into a stable glass form for disposal.

The meeting will be held at the Three Rivers Convention Center, 7016 W. Grandridge Blvd., Kennewick, a change from the earlier announced location of the Richland Federal Building. The meeting is planned from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. to noon Friday.

Among speakers listed on the agenda is Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management. In addition Hanford DOE officials and officials for contractors Bechtel National and URS have been asked to answer questions.

Public comment will be heard, but the safety board requested that those interested in speaking contact the board by last week.

DOE already has provided more than 200 pages of written answers to safety board questions in preparation for the meeting. The answers are posted at www.dnfsb.gov.

"Starting in fiscal year 2009, DOE made major changes to the (Waste Treatment Plant) design philosophy and design, including the safety approach," said safety board chairman Peter Winokur in a letter to DOE. "The board has worked closely with DOE and its contractors to follow the design changes as they have evolved during the past two years. During the period, the board raised a number of concerns regarding the design and safety strategy."

Among changes have been reductions in the assumed radioactivity of the waste because of radioactive decay and more realistic assumptions about the waste feed, Winokur said.

The board's primary focus at the Kennewick meeting will be on whether the design strategy of the plant's Pretreatment Facility will be sufficient to protect the public and workers from an accidental release of radioactive and hazardous materials. The Pretreatment Facility will be used to separate waste pumped from the tank farms into high-level and low-activity radioactive waste streams.

The board will be looking closely at whether DOE and its contractors will be able to keep heavy particles of waste adequately mixed in vessels at the vitrification plant. If particles settle out there could be a danger of a criticality or a buildup of flammable gas.

It's also interested in the revised design strategy to address a possible buildup of flammable hydrogen in pipes and ancillary vessels.

The board also will be looking at safety-related design aspects of new facilities or modification of existing facilities needed to deliver high level waste to the plant.

The safety board was created by Congress to provide independent oversight of the nation's nuclear weapons complex.