Hanford

Hanford vit plant cost estimate jumps $4.5 billion

Hanford vitrification plant workers walk across the rebar flooring for the new Effluent Mangement Facility.
Hanford vitrification plant workers walk across the rebar flooring for the new Effluent Mangement Facility. Courtesy Bechtel National

The cost increase to start treating some waste at Hanford to meet a federal court-enforced deadline will be about $4.5 billion, according to new information from the Department of Energy.

It raises the estimated cost of the vitrification plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation from $12.3 billion to $16.8 billion, with more costs to be added to the estimate as technical issues at the plant are resolved.

The additional cost announced Friday would allow radioactive waste to begin to be removed from underground tanks, some of them prone to leaks, and turned into a stable glass form as soon as possible rather than waiting until all parts of the vitrification plant are ready to operate to begin waste treatment.

The announcement came Friday as DOE and its contractor Bechtel National signed off on contract modifications for the changed work at the vitrification plant being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from producing plutonium at Hanford for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

“We are confident that the modified contract and baseline represents the most effective and expeditious path towards beginning tank waste treatment at Hanford as soon as practicable,” said Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection.

The contract modifications cover just those parts of the vitrification plant needed to treat low activity radioactive waste, including the Low Activity Waste Facility, the Analytical Laboratory and about 23 support facilities on the vitrification plant campus. The total cost to build just those structures and prepare them for operations is $8.1 billion, with $3.8 billion of that already spent or received in the Hanford budget.

Making glass as soon as possible has huge benefits.

Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection

Technical issues related to high level radioactive waste stopped construction on the plant’s Pretreatment Facility in 2012 and on part of the High Level Waste Facility, both of which will handle high level radioactive waste. Additional costs for those facilities will not be added to the current $16.8 billion estimate until technical issues are resolved.

The previous verified cost estimate of $12.3 billion was made in 2006 when the plant was planned to start treating some waste in 2019 and be at full operation in 2022. Now the court-set deadline for full operation is 2036 because of delays caused by technical issues, including the possibility of corrosion of piping, a buildup of flammable gases or an unplanned nuclear reaction.

But the court also is requiring DOE to start treating some low level radioactive waste in 2023, under a plan that both the state of Washington and DOE agree is the best path forward.

“Making glass as soon as possible has huge benefits,” Smith said. DOE is working to beat the 2023 deadline by a year.

By getting waste treated as soon as possible, space would be freed up in Hanford’s double-shell tanks to store more waste from Hanford’s older and leak-prone single shell tanks until it can be treated. The result would be a reduced risk of waste leaking into the ground, Smith said.

It also would allow some experience to be gained on starting operations before the entire plant starts up. And it would prevent facilities that are already nearly completed from sitting dormant and possibly requiring repairs before they are put into use.

The original plan had been to send all waste through the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility to separate it into high level and low activity radioactive waste streams for separate glassification at the plant’s High Level Waste Facility and the Low Activity Waste Facility.

The contract was aggressively negotiated by DOE to ensure that we have shared risk and that Bechtel is rewarded for performing and if they do not perform are penalized.

Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection

DOE plans to start glassifying low activity radioactive waste by instead pretreating some of the storage tank’s liquid waste before it is sent to the vitrification plant. Liquid waste contains mostly low activity radioactivity and the small amount of high level radioactive constituents it holds would be removed. The tanks also hold waste in the form of sludge.

Significant work has been done on most of the facilities needed for low activity radioactive waste treatment.

The Analytical Laboratory needed to provide analysis for waste treatment is close to being completed, along with most of the support facilities. Most major equipment has been installed in the Low Activity Waste Facility, and construction on it is expected to be finished in 2018, according to DOE.

The additional cost of $4.5 billion will include one new support facility and new underground piping; preparing support facilities to serve only the Low Activity Waste Facility instead of the entire plant; the longer construction period than anticipated when the last verified cost estimate was made a decade ago; and a more realistic schedule to prepare for startup of treatment after construction is done.

The cost of the new pretreatment facility — the Law-Activity Waste Pretreatment System — which will be built outside the vitrification plant campus, is not included in the vitrification plant budget.

It will handle the front end of the operation, but an Effluent Management Facility also must be built to handle the back end of the system and is included in the new estimate.

Foundation preparation work has begun on an 18,400-square-foot Effluent Management Facility at the vitrification plant. The low activity waste captured in the off-gas system as the Low Activity Waste Facility turns waste into glass will be captured and sent to the new Effluent Management Facility.

The new cost estimate also reflects new DOE project management policies by including contingency money for unknown issues to allow 90 percent confidence the budget will be sufficient.

For the first time in nearly three years, we will have clear milestones and schedules — with fee incentives and disincentives.

Peggy McCullough, Bechtel project director

The estimate has undergone a series of DOE and external reviews by independent experts, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The results of the analyses were reviewed by a board led by the DOE deputy secretary.

The modified contract is meant to shift more risk for the project from taxpayers to contractor Bechtel National, according to DOE.

“The contract was aggressively negotiated by DOE to ensure that we have shared risk and that Bechtel is rewarded for performing and if they do not perform are penalized,” Smith said.

Bechtel can earn up to $360 million in remaining incentive pay, with about two-thirds of the pay tied to timely and successful completion of key milestones toward finishing the project.

Bechtel can earn additional pay or have its pay reduced based on its cost and schedule performance. The additional pay would come from reductions to the actual cost of completing and preparing the vitrification plant for treating of low activity waste.

“For the first time in nearly three years, we will have clear milestones and schedules — with fee incentives and disincentives — aligned with current activities,” said Peggy McCullough, Bechtel project director in a message to employees. “Clear expectations allow us better plan and prioritize our work.”

She pledged to be vigilant about quality and safety as Bechtel works to meet milestones.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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