Vit plant budget doubted in review

The Department of Energy may not be able to complete the Hanford vitrification plant for the projected $12.2 billion, according to an internal DOE document.

The $12.2 billion figure is at risk due to uncertainties in congressional funding for the project, increased cost growth outpacing savings and delays in resolving technical waste mixing issues, according to a briefing document by the Construction Project Review team.

However, a "refined approach to treating the small fraction" of the most difficult waste, which includes plutonium, could help curb cost growth, the document indicated. That could mean finishing the design of the plant to treat the majority of the waste and then continuing to work on studies for treating the most difficult waste.

DOE has not released the briefing document, considering it "predecisional," but the document has been circulated outside Hanford by others. A formal report on the team's most recent review has not been written and could differ from the document prepared to brief officials after the team's latest visit to Hanford.

The team of industry, academic and DOE members assesses progress and potential problems on the project and advises DOE about every six months.

The document said that if Congress continues to provide the budgets DOE has outlined, the review team has identified a potential cost overrun of $800 million to $900 million.

However, that might be offset by $350 million saved if DOE proceeds with a phased commissioning of the plant, preparing some buildings to operate and then moving on to others, rather than commissioning the entire plant at once, according to the document. Labor costs could be lower and lessons learned commissioning the first buildings could save money on later buildings.

That also could lead to earlier operation of the part of the plant treating low activity radioactive waste.

The shortfall of up to $900 million is based on strong Hanford budgets at a time when Congress is looking to cut federal budgets. DOE has asked for $840 million for the vitrification plant in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, but the House has passed a budget that cuts that to $740 million. A final budget has yet to be approved.

"Funding uncertainty is the major project risk," the document said. It also could affect the schedule of the plant, which is required to begin operating in 2019.

The vitrification plant project was planned on a steady budget of $690 million a year, but DOE now wants to spend more money in upcoming years and less money in out years.

The project also is continuing to struggle to prove whether the most difficult of Hanford's waste can be kept well mixed at the plant to prevent problems, including the remove possibility of an uncontrolled chain reaction if too much plutonium settles out or a buildup of explosive gases.

The vitrification plant, or Waste Treatment Plant, is planned to treat for disposal all of Hanford's high level radioactive waste and much of its low activity radioactive waste now held in underground tanks at Hanford. The waste, left from the past production of plutonium at Hanford, totals 56 million gallons.

"Significant progress has been achieved on some technical issues, but overall progress is slower than expected," the document said.

DOE is addressing the issues with computer modeling and with a planned large-scale mixing demonstration.

However, the team said that waste in a small number of tanks is driving criticality concerns and the design for the mixing system. Hanford has 177 underground tanks, most of which still hold waste.

"The expectation that WTP must be demonstrated at design completion to be able to treat all of the waste puts the WTP project at risk," the document said.

Bechtel National, the DOE contractor on the project, has said previously that when the plant begins operating, the less-challenging waste will be treated first. The plant as designed will be able to treat the vast majority of the high-level waste held in underground tanks now, but additional testing is needed to prove it can treat the remainder of the waste, Bechtel has said.

"As the Construction Project Review team noted, our project management team has made significant progress on the project and in resolving issues," DOE said in a statement. "However, the Waste Treatment Plant project is a challenging and complex endeavor, and these types of reviews provide regular, independent feedback that enables the department to continuously improve its management of this important project."

The document did find positive steps on the project. It has been effectively managed and led and the majority of previous recommendations are closed, it said.

"Significant progress towards completing the project has resulted over the past two years, primarily due to the actions taken by the new management and leadership on both the contractor and federal sides," the document said.

The projected cost of $12.2 billion for the vitrification plant has held steady since fall 2006 when a comprehensive look at the cost and schedule of the plant was completed.

Former Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman had called for a validated cost and schedule after it became clear that the estimated $5.5 billion cost from March 2003 was far too low and that the plant would not be operating by a legal deadline then of 2011.

The increase to $12.2 billion was blamed on many factors, including rising steel costs, the need to revise earthquake design standards, technical problems, the lack of suppliers certified to perform nuclear-quality work, underestimating costs of a one-of-a-kind plant, management problems and inadequate Congressional budget support.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.