Hanford Treatment Plant Components Need To Be Reexamined For Safety

Mar 23, 2012

KENNEWICK, Wash. – Top managers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation say they’re going to have to reexamine key components of a massive waste treatment plant under construction in southeast Washington. That’s according to testimony at a marathon hearing in Kennewick Thursday. The federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board was there to listen to concerns about the plant being built to treat 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Correspondent Anna King reports.

One person the board heard from is Donna Busche. She’s the manager of environmental and nuclear safety on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s waste treatment plant project. She told the members of the federal nuclear watchdog board that she can’t vouch for the safety of many parts of the plant. Some of them are already installed. In fact, Busche and her team are trying to reconstruct documentation for many parts of the factory. Teams are literally walking around the construction site to see what might be amiss.

“The information in the preliminary documented safety analysis has not been updated for many years – approximately six for mixing,” Busche said.

The head of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Peter Winokur, asked Busche what it will take to correct that problem.

“Is this a major undertaking?” he asked.

“Absolutely." Busche said. "I would suspect that right now just some preliminary planning we’re doing we’re going to have to have an interdisciplinary team, not just nuclear safety professionals, engineers and operational staff, will have to be involved.”

Busche went on to say that the effort will likely take at least 15 to 20 full time experts a year to finish digging out of the problem.

Scott Samuelson is the Manager of the Department of Energy’s office that’s building the waste treatment plant. He says work has stopped on elements of the project where there might be problems – for example on large mixing vessels designed to treat radioactive sludge.

“The vessels where we have questions, aren’t going anyplace until we can understand what they need to be and whether they can meet their functions. And that’s going to take a while – which is going to have to be what it’s got to be to get us where we need to go. We have no other choice we have to do it right,” Samuelson said.

Top officials with Hanford’s treatment plant admitted that the whole project – from designers to trades workers -- need a healthier safety culture. Some workers testified that they still don’t feel safe bringing up technical issues with the plant, or fear retribution for doing so. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board plans another meeting with senior waste treatment plant staff in May in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio