Energy Secretary Chu to assemble expert panel to examine Hanford vit plant

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has assembled a group of technical experts he will work with to take a fresh look at the Hanford vitrification plant and its black cells.

During his visit to Hanford in June, Chu said the possibility of a serious problem once the plant begins operating weighed heavily on his mind. He was considering assembling the sort of panel of brilliant and creative thinkers he brought together after the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he said.

The Department of Energy announced Thursday the new technical review panel to look at the plant's "black cells" areas, designed to have no worker access during the 40 years the plant operates because of high levels of radioactivity.

"I will be receiving input from each of these highly capable experts to help improve our ability to detect and address any potential issues in the black cells that could arise during the course of the Waste Treatment Plant's operational life," Chu said in a statement.

"These experts have a reputation for developing creative solutions to highly technical issues and their independent advice will enable us to integrate worthwhile ideas into the design of the plant before construction is completed," he said.

Chu and the independent experts will begin reviewing information about the vit plant this week and are expected to visit Hanford in the next few months, according to DOE.

No end date for the project has been announced.

Construction is ramping down on key parts of the plant until technical issues that could affect the future safe operation of the plant are addressed. The $12.2 billion plant is being built to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste, left from past weapons plutonium production, to allow its disposal.

Issues include keeping waste well mixed to prevent a buildup of radioactive particles in tanks or piping in the black cells, including a buildup of plutonium that could lead to a small chance of a criticality.

In addition, there are concerns that metals could erode or corrode during the life of the plant.

While those issues could play into the look at black cells, the goal of the new review is to take a fresh look at the project to minimize downtime and protect workers, David Huizenga, DOE's senior adviser for the Office of Environmental Management, told the Herald.

The project has a solid design and the independent review will not be rethinking the fundamentals of the project, he said.

The review will assess the plant's capability to detect equipment vulnerabilities or failures in black cells, assess plans to repair those systems and recommend any design or operation changes that might be needed, according to DOE.

Because the plant's 18 black cells are not planned to be entered during 40 years of waste treatment, they have been designed with mixing and other systems that have no moving mechanical parts that would require maintenance.

DOE is reviewing that technical approach to determine whether those areas can or should be accessible for monitoring and repairing equipment once waste treatment begins.

Chu has been personally involved in vit plant issues since he took office and has spent a fair amount of time on the issue with officials at DOE headquarters and at Hanford, Huizenga said.

The technical experts picked for the review include people he has confidence in and in many cases has worked with, Huizenga said. "He has a lot of energy on this," he said.

"The bottom line is the project welcomes the opportunity to work with the secretary and this group of experts," he said.

The individuals are known for their expertise and capability to analyze complex problems and facilities and provide sound recommendations to the government, said Scott Samuelson, manager of DOE's Office of River Protection, in a statement.

The experts who will conduct the review include:

w Langdon Holton of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who has worked on nuclear fuel reprocessing, waste separations and treatment and development of waste treatment technologies for programs in the United States, Germany and France.

w Thomas Hunter, a retired laboratories director of Sandia National Laboratories.

w David Kossen, a Vanderbilt University professor and co-principal investigator of the multi-university Consortium for Risk Evaluation and Stakeholder Participation.

w Milton Levenson, who led the technical team that responded to the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and was appointed to a special Soviet commission that investigated the Chernobyl accident.

w Arun Majumdar, the first director of the nation's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy, which is devoted to transformational energy research and development.

w Richard Meserve, an attorney and the president of the Carnegie Institution and former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

w Per Peterson, chairman of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

w Monica Regalbuto of Argonne National Laboratory, who previously served as a senior program manager with the Office of Waste Processing with DOE's Office of Environmental Management.