The Hanford vitrification plant is in jeopardy of not meeting deadlines recently agreed to in a court-enforced consent decree, a DOE official said Monday.
The announcement by David Huizenga, Department of Energy acting assistant secretary for environmental management, came with the release of a new Construction Project Review report that discusses likely increases to the$12.2 billion cost of the project. The plant is being built to turn radioactive waste left from weapons production of plutonium into a stable glass form for disposal.
"With the continuation of unresolved technical issues, identification of new risks and realization of existing risks exceeding opportunities, successful completion of the project within the approved project cost of $12.26 billion is a formidable challenge," the report stated.
The cost could increase by$800 million to $900 million, it stated, although it also included potential ways to reduce the cost increase. A presentation on a draft of the report leaked from DOE in August included the same cost increase estimate.
The DOE Office of Engineering and Construction Management already has rated the vitrification plant project "yellow" based on the ability to meet budget and schedule, but Huizenga said he expects that to change to "red" in the next few days.
The cost, schedule and scope, or amount of work, included in the project are at risk, Huizenga said.
Although he did not indicate which deadlines were at risk in the consent decree, the Tri-Party Agreement now requires the vitrification plant to start treating waste in 2019 and be fully operational in 2022.
The consent decree also includes shorter-term "pacing deadlines" to keep the plant's construction and commissioning moving forward at a pace to meet the key 2019 and 2022 deadlines.
A U.S. Eastern Washington District judge signed the consent degree 13 months ago, after more than a year of negotiations among the Washington state Department of Ecology, DOE and others. The previous legal deadline required the plant to begin operating in 2011.
"I am extremely disappointed to hear about a possible delay in cleanup projects at Hanford," said Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, in a statement. "The construction schedule, set by consent decree, established timelines for our highest priority projects."
She is waiting for more information from DOE to determine why timelines are at risk.
"Failure is not an option," she said.
DOE will be discussing potential consent decree issues with the Justice Department and the states of Washington and Oregon as a precaution, Huizenga said.
The projected cost of $12.2 billion for the vitrification plant has held steady since fall 2006, when acomprehensive look at the cost and schedule of the plant was completed. The study was done as it became clear that the $5.5 billion cost estimated in 2003 was far too low.
The Construction Project Review report released Monday found that although opportunities for cost savings were being found at the project, newly identified risks are potentially increasing the cost or extending the schedule faster. The difference is growing at a rate of $21.6 million a month, and that rate could continue for two more years, the review stated.
Among the technical issues driving up costs of the plant are questions about whether radioactive waste will remain well mixed within the plant. If it does not, plutonium could build up, presenting a small risk of a criticality, or hydrogen could build up, leading to an explosion.
DOE now is proposing that the plant be started with capabilities to treat 80 percent or more of the waste and look for solutions to help with treating the more problematic portion of the waste. It includes the waste with higher levels of plutonium and with projected high rates of flammable gas production because of organic content.
That could provide a significant opportunity to arrest continued cost growth in mixing testing, the report stated.
Testing could show that the plant, particularly the Pretreatment Facility where concerns are now, is capable of handling all the waste, the report stated. But if the testing does not prove that, options such as grinding or blending waste before sending it to the Pretreatment Facility or even bypassing the Pretreatment Facility might solve issues, the report stated.
Additional cost savings of about $350 million could come from 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 report.
The report also proposed that some costs for commissioning the plant included in the $12.2 billion budget be moved into the operating budget for the plant. Once radioactive waste is introduced into the plant, the "hot commissioning" costs would be considered operating costs under the proposal.
Changes to the schedule of the plant would depend in part on how much money Congress appropriates, and Huizenga did not discuss any specifics about a potential schedule change.
Although no budget has been passed for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the vit plant project is expected to receive $740 million this year. The estimate of an increase of $800 million to$900 million to the $12.2 billion cost of the plant was based on a budget this year of $840 million, rather than the likely $740 million.
DOE already has been criticized by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., for abandoning a longtime plan to pay for the plant with $690 million a year appropriated by Congress each year. DOE changed Bechtel National's contract to reflect higher budgets.
Hastings has warned that moving away from steady funding will lead to cycles of layoffs and expensive rehiring at the plant.
"The department needs to stop adding risk and uncertainty to (the vitrification plant) by planning exclusively to a funding profile that will not happen -- and frankly will have inevitable detrimental impacts on other cleanup priorities," Hastings wrote in a Nov. 7 letter to Huizenga.
Huizenga replied in a letter to Hastings on Monday that "the project baseline is being evaluated, and we are analyzing funding profile options and impacts."
DOE plans to maintain planned progress on most major facilities at the vitrification plant but will place an emphasis on resolving technical issues for the Pretreatment Facility while continuing construction on areas not affected by technical concerns, Huizenga stated in the letter.
Hastings has been pressing DOE on the latest potential cost overrun since it was identified three months ago, his staff said.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and a candidate for governor, called Monday for a congressional hearing on the vit plant.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com