Energy Secretary Steven Chu hedged at a Senate hearing Wednesday on how confident he is that technical issues at the Hanford vitrification plant have all been identified and can be resolved.
More will be known about how well the plant's waste mixing system will work, a key technical issue at the $12.2 billion plant, when more testing is completed, Chu told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., at a hearing of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Murray used her time at the fiscal 2013 budget request hearing to raise not only vit plant technical issues, but also to ask whether DOE could be sure it will meet deadlines under a new court-enforced consent decree.
"You are quite right to be concerned," Chu said.
Her questions came as DOE Hanford officials have asked vit plant contractor Bechtel National to propose a new baseline, or cost and schedule plan, for the project. The proposal, due in August, would need to be approved by the deputy secretary of energy to change the project's cost and schedule.
The last time a new baseline for the project was set was 2006, when a comprehensive look at the cost and schedule concluded that the $5.5 billion estimate for the plant in 2003 was far too low and raised the price tag to $12.2 billion. It also pushed the expected start of operations at the plant from 2011-19.
The plant is being built to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.
Construction has been under way for almost a decade and design almost is complete, yet several people who work on the project and outside agencies are raising significant technical issues, Murray said at the Senate hearing.
"Inside the black cells there is no room for error," she said.
Black cells will process high-level radioactive waste, making them too radioactively hot for workers to safely enter for maintenance after processing begins. They will hold tanks where inadequate mixing of radioactive waste could lead to a criticality or buildup of flammable gases.
"I agree with you once it goes hot, we want to be sure it works," Chu said. That's why it's prudent to do extra testing of the technology, he said.
There also are opportunities to "buy insurance" on how well particles of solid waste will remain mixed, including by filtering the waste before it enters the treatment system, he said.
The issues that have been raised, including keeping waste well mixed, have been known for several years, possibly before he became energy secretary, Chu said.
The vitrification plant is one of the most difficult projects DOE has ever undertaken, Murray said. But DOE signed a court-enforced consent decree with Hanford regulators based on a plant schedule to start treating waste in 2019 and be in full operation by 2022.
"I've been very frustrated in recent years," Murray said.
The Department of Energy changed its funding plan for the plant and revised Bechtel's contract to reflect higher budgets, but "Congress does not like to be surprised," she said.
The plant had been planned on a steady budget of $690 million a year, but DOE has wanted to move some budget money from out years to earlier years to resolve technical issues and for use in peak construction years.
"Congress does not have ever-increasing funds to address one project," Murray told Chu.
DOE needs to consult with Congress as a new budget and schedule is approved for the project, she said.
She also asked Chu what would happen if the new consent decree requirements are not met.
Consent decree issues hinge on the budgets that DOE gets for the plant from Congress, Chu replied.
In February the Obama administration proposed to Congress that the vit plant receive $690 million in fiscal 2013, down from $740 million this year. DOE plans had called for spending $970 million on the plant in fiscal 2013.
The decrease reflects the project's opportunity to resolve technical issues in the Pretreatment Facility, where mixing and other issues have been raised, according to the budget request document.
The new cost and schedule proposal DOE has requested from Bechtel assumes an annual budget of $690 million through 2021.
The top priority should be meeting commitments to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to verify technical issues are resolved, including performing a large-scale mixing test, according to a letter from DOE to Bechtel.
Next would be completing sections of the plant that will not process high-level radioactive waste. That includes the Low Level Waste Facility, the Analytical Laboratory and an assortment of support buildings.
Then, remaining resources should be focused first on the High Level Waste Facility and then on the Pretreatment Facility, according to the letter. At the High Level Waste Facility engineering and construction should be completed as money allows. At the Pretreatment Facility, Bechtel's instructions include completing engineering and work to reduce risks and technical issues, but construction is not mentioned.
The plan calls for delivery of low-level radioactive waste to the plant in 2017, which would allow treatment of that waste to begin before the Pretreatment Facility and High Level Waste Facility are operating.
Bechtel also has been instructed to consider impacts to the consent decree, plus the Tri-Party Agreement, which has additional legal deadlines, in the proposed new cost and schedule plan.