Government Accountability Office to review Hanford vit plant management

The Government Accountability Office is beginning a review of the Department of Energy's management of Hanford's vitrification plant.

It received a request from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., both of whom serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the GAO told the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in a letter. The GAO expects the review to touch on issues of concern to the defense board.

The review's objectives are not final, but among the initial focuses will be the reliability of the projected cost and schedule for completing the plant, including how that compares to prior estimates.

Preliminary results in late August from a Construction Project Review said the project was at risk of exceeding its $12.2 billion budget by $800 million to $900 million, although it also discussed ways those amounts could be reduced.

The cost of the 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 the study after it became clear that the $5.5 billion cost estimated in 2003 was unrealistic.

The schedule for the start of operations also was extended then from 2011 to 2019.

Cost control challenges and proposed resolutions will be reviewed by the GAO, said the letter.

The GAO also will look at the primary design and technical challenges facing the project and what plans DOE has to resolve them.

DOE is continuing to look at how well a system will operate that is designed to keep high-level radioactive waste mixed in the plant's black cell tanks. The black cells are areas too radioactive for workers to enter once operations begin, requiring mixing to be done without moving parts that would require maintenance.

Questions have been raised about whether the mixing system will be able to keep plutonium particles from accumulating on the bottom of the tanks, which could result in a criticality, although it would be unlikely.

DOE and Bechtel are preparing for a large-scale mixing test that is planned to prove how well the mixing system works.

The GAO also will look at the effectiveness of DOE's approach to build the plant while design work is being done. DOE picked that approach as an opportunity to get the plant operating sooner to treat high-level radioactive waste now stored in underground tanks.

The review also will look at the effects of recent changes to the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement on cost, schedule, safety and quality of the project.