Life on the farm isn’t all that swell right now, if your farm is the Hanford Vit Plant.

The mega $12.2-billion project has had its share of negative news recently, as the Dept. of Energy and its contractor, Bechtel, struggle to figure out exactly how to handle construction and immense technical challenges on the 65-acre site. You see, turning 70-year-old radioactive waste into vitrified glass for long-term safe storage isn’t exactly going as planned. And partly because there was no great plan to start with.

But still, even with over a decade of ballooning costs—the project’s scope has grown immensely, so the price tag has too, from $4 billion to over $12 billion without a realistic end in sight—the last few weeks have been especially unkind to both Bechtel and the DOE.

First it was bad news for Bechtel, when a Hanford DOE staffer took them to task in a memo that went public, including with my report for Engineering News Record, for a lack of expertise on the project, declaring that the company is “not competent to complete [its] role as the design authority for the [project].”

The August memo from Gary Brunson, the U.S. Energy Dept. engineering director at Hanford, used 23 pages to outline 34 examples of questionable design decisions that he felt were unsafe, too costly or “technically flawed.”

Of course, Frank Russo, Bechtel’s project director, counters Brunson’s claims and says Bechtel hasn’t made any decisions without the DOE fully aware of the options and in full cooperation with the federal overseers.

But no matter your view or whom you want to blame, if anyone, the squabble simply further brought to light the difficult technical challenges involved in the vit plant design. With an ever-changing set of data describing the chemical makeup of the radioactive waste, deciphering the best way to safely turn it into vitrified glass has proven challenging, to say the least.

As a show of either seriousness or simply confusion, U.S. Dept. of Energy Secretary Steven Chu led a nearly weeklong excursion, with a group of experts, to Hanford to specifically look into the “black box” issue inside the vit plant. The black boxes are a closed complex of pipes and vessels that would carry waste so radioactive during the plant's 40 years of operation that they could never be inspected or repaired by humans. A DOE inspector-general probe says Bechtel has failed to monitor the area and could potentially be exposing workers to high levels of radiation. Russo says there are other options on the table, including a sort of graying of the space, using robotics as a way to ensure repairs to machinery can be made when needed.

But the black box is just one technical issue ongoing and the one out front because of Chu’s visit. And all those issues have Washington State worried, with Governor Chris Gregoire recently saying the state doesn’t believe the DOE is serious about keeping its legal obligation to start treating the waste by 2022. And with Congress recently flat lining the Hanford budget at $690 million per year, that 2022 deadline seems ever so dicey.

The issues keep mounting for Bechtel and the DOE in their quest to rid Hanford of radioactive waste leaking from single-shell tanks—and now possibly double-shell tanks too, if you want even more bad news. The project needs a positive turn around and it can’t keep waiting for that turnaround to happen. They’ve waited far too long already.

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