Top Hanford Scientist Calls Treatment Plant Pipes Not Strong Enough

Feb 7, 2012

RICHLAND, Wash. – Over the last two years we’ve brought you numerous stories about high-level whistleblowers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation's nuclear waste treatment plant. It’s one of the largest environmental cleanup projects on Earth. Now, yet another top expert there is risking his career to speak openly. He tells our correspondent Anna King the plant’s vessels and pipes -- as they’re designed now -- will leak radioactive waste within their planned lifespan.

Don Alexander is a top scientist with the Department of Energy. He makes scientific recommendations about Hanford’s waste treatment plant: The one that’s being designed to process 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge near the Columbia River.

“I want to see us be successful," Alexander says. "And remove this problem that was created out here by people in my grandfather’s generation.”

And the waste treatment plant at Hanford has Alexander worried -- especially about the plant’s pipes and large containers, called vessels, that are intended to process the waste into huge glass logs. The pipes are made of stainless steel metal. But he says that metal just isn’t tough enough to withstand this toxic radioactive gunk for 40 years without any maintenance.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, with the hardest metal being a 10, the one that can resist erosion the best being a 10, the metals that were selected for the plant are about a 2,” he explains.

Here’s why that’s a problem: The sludge has a lot of heavy metals, abrasive particles and it’s corrosive. It could eat holes in the metal. And Alexander says it could happen in the section of the plant that’s sealed off from humans because it will be so radioactively hot.

“From my perspective," he says, "we are probably in a worse position today with respect to our linkage between our design and our safety basis than we’ve ever been.”

These concerns are not Alexander’s alone. Experiments run for plant contractor Bechtel showed much more erosion in far less time than predicted by other scientists.

What’s more, the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recently issued a report outlining similar concerns with the pipes and vessels.

Alexander felt so strongly about this issue he filed a formal “differing professional opinion” document with the Department of Energy. All of this led the agency to hire a group of other scientists take a look at all the evidence and report back.

Scott Samuelson is the Department of Energy’s manager at the waste treatment plant project.

He says, “Our commitment is that if something needs to be changed in order to make sure that this plant performs its appropriate function and it operates safely than we’re going to do that.”

And the Department of Energy said in a statement, that it’s aware of the concerns about pipe strength and continues to test the durability of the plant’s materials.

But Alexander says he raised these issues years ago. Since then a lot of the pipes and vessels have been installed. Alexander says the longer project managers wait the more costly it will get to fix these issues.

“Everybody is saying everything is fine, everything is fine," he says. "Everything will be fine until we operate right?”

He compares the treatment plant to another government project that went horribly wrong in 1986. Before the space shuttle Challenger exploded, engineers raised concerns, but NASA managers went ahead anyway.

Alexander says right now Hanford’s treatment plant buildings look impressive -– towering giants of concrete and steel. “But when the button is pressed, like it was for the Challenger," he says, "everything changes.”

The scientists for the Department of Energy expect to release their findings this summer. The federal nuclear safety board plans a public hearing in the Tri-Cities in March.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio