WSU regents vote today on new Richland lab

RICHLAND -- A new research facility might sprout in Richland this fall if several decision makers approve the project in the next few weeks.

The first decision is due this morning.

The Washington State University Board of Regents plans to vote on a proposal by WSU Tri-Cities to enter a partnership with the Hanford contractor EnergySolutions for construction of a 13,000-square-foot lab across from the campus.

The board meets in Richland at 8:30 a.m.

If the board approves, WSU would allow EnergySolutions to build a $2.5 million testing facility on about seven acres of university land on the southwest corner of George Washington Way and University Drive, said Dick Pratt, WSU Tri-Cities vice chancellor.

The company would not buy the land from WSU and the university would not pay any costs for the construction or utility hookups.

Once the facility is built, EnergySolutions would donate it to WSU and then lease it from the university for 18 months for $15, Pratt said.

At the end of the 18 months, the company would have an option to extend its lease by one year only, for which it would pay going market rates.

After that, the facility would turn into WSU's new engineering lab, possibly with EnergySolutions as a partner.

The university really could use a donated teaching and research lab, one board member said as regents met Thursday.

"There's no capital project money available for this campus," said Kennewick lawyer Fran Forgette, one of the regents. "We have to be open to this sort of philanthropy."

The company has agreed to build the lab with WSU's needs in mind, which means turning it into research and teaching spaces later would involve minimal costs, Pratt said.

The predesign plans call the facility a "large scale mixing demonstration platform." The main building in the design is a 10,000-square-foot concrete shell with ceilings up to 50 feet high. Attached is a 3,000-square-foot office wing.

The roof is removable to allow lowering huge tanks into the part of the facility called a high-bay. Those tanks would be used to simulate mixing the feed stock for the waste vitrification plant at Hanford, Pratt said.

The contractor's work at the new facility would involve no radioactive or otherwise hazardous materials, he said. A sludge mixed from harmless materials would stand in for the radioactive wastes held in Hanford's underground tanks.

A few hurdles need to be cleared before ground can be broken.

If the WSU regents agree to the deal today, EnergySolutions still needs to land the contract at Hanford, Pratt said, although he sounded confident the company would succeed.

A company official was reluctant to provide any information on the project and wouldn't even acknowledge a Hanford contract was in play.

"If WSU is amenable to the proposal, we would go out and find customers that have testing needs and work with WSU to bring those customers to the project," said Tom Yount, vice president of EnergySolutions' engineering technology group. "This is exploratory at the moment -- nothing is locked down solid. We're looking at this as a long-term relationship with WSU."

The company has a similar relationship with The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he said.

The company built a smaller-scale lab at Catholic University for melters related to the vit plant and handed it over once it had done its testing. That university now makes money off its lab, Pratt said.

The lab here could be equally beneficial for WSU and for the whole community, he said.

The costs to run the building would be balanced by an increase in fees the university charges private companies to do research.

Students could become interns for EnergySolutions at the lab and learn skills that will be sought-after once the vit plant opens, Pratt said.

The building would be great for other programs at WSU that require the use of tall tanks, such as bioproduct fermentation and water resource work, he said.

"It's Hanford-related for now, but it has a lot of flexibility," Pratt said. "It fits the master plan for the research district."

The process is expected to move quickly if everything comes together. The facility could be finished in six to eight months, Pratt said.