17 years after work started on a $17 billion Hanford plant, crews are being hired to run it

Hanford prepares to treat radioactive waste at the vitrification plant

The Department of Energy is preparing to start turning some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form at the Hanford vitrification plant.
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The Department of Energy is preparing to start turning some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form at the Hanford vitrification plant.

Hiring is underway for some of the workers who likely will operate Hanford’s $17 billion vitrification plant.

Some are already at work in one of the Hanford nuclear reservation plant’s key control rooms, helping monitor the Low Activity Waste Facility and its systems around the clock.

The hiring and training of workers to operate the plant is “a significant development on the path to finally beginning to treat Hanford’s toxic and radioactive tank waste,” said the Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator.

The plant has been under construction since 2002.

Over the past 22 months, Bechtel National and its subcontractor Aecom have brought on about 75 commissioning technicians, and they plan gradually to hire about 75 more.

The Department of Energy is making plans for a new contract covering vitrification plant operations and maintenance for when the plant starts full operations for treating low activity radioactive waste as soon as 2022.

Training manager Heidi Schuette works with new commissioning technicians and the staff of a facility in north Richland used to train workers to operate the the Low Activity Waste Facility at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The commissioning staff will be qualified to transition to the operations contractor after commissioning is completed.

Vitrification plant training in Richland

Bechtel has the contract to design, build and commission the plant, which will include test operations with first a nonradioactive simulant of waste and then radioactive waste.

The plant is being built to turn much of the 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.

Fog surrounds the Low-Activity Waste Facility at Hanford Courtesy Bechtel National

Initially, only low activity waste separated out from the waste in the tanks will be treated, with treatment of high level radioactive waste likely delayed until 2033 because of technical issues being resolved at the plant.

New commissioning hires undergo initial training at classrooms and a mock-up of the Low Activity Waste Facility in a north Richland building. One training session began April 8 and another is planned to begin in July.

Once qualified, the technicians move to the vitrification plant in the center of the Hanford Site, where training continues and they use the same processes and procedures they learned at the mock-up facility as the portions of the plant that will handle low activity waste are brought on line.

Navy experience a plus in hiring

Training topics range from teamwork and communications to information on 200 separate systems in the Low Activity Waste Facility and its support facilities. A key part of that training is learning to use computer software to manage the plant.

The control room is being staffed 24 hours a day now, just as it will be when the plant begins operating. Melters that will heat mixtures of waste and glass-forming materials to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit will be left on once they are started up.

Bechtel National has used a custom-made steel frame to turn over the first of two 28-ton lids that will top the melters at the Hanford vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility.

Commissioning of the Low Activity Waste Facility, or testing all of its systems in unison, could begin in 2021 with the nonradioactive waste simulant.

Hiring for commissioning is being done by Aecom, with jobs posted at aecom.com/careers as they become available.

Vit plant managers are particularly interested in hiring former U.S. Navy workers with nuclear experience. Most hired workers will be affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Because some engineering and construction work is being completed at the vitrification plant as some of its systems are starting up, Bechtel does not expect a net increase in staffing as commissioning staff is hired.

The vitrification plant project employs about 2,900 Bechtel and Aecom workers now, according to DOE.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.