As the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant — more commonly referred to as the Vit Plant — moves toward a process of turning 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into vitrified glass in 2023, the first team of chemists have already set up shop in the plant. The chemists will perform the first scientific work taking place inside the plant’s new Analytical Laboratory to support starting the treatment of Hanford tank waste. 

The Dept. of Energy’s largest-ever waste cleanup project, located in southeast Washington, aims to turn 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored in underground tanks since World War II—the result of more than four decades of plutonium production—and use a vitrification process to turn the waste into vitrified glass for long-term safe storage. 

To do so, Bechtel National Inc. continues to build the Vit Plant. To move along the delayed process on a $16.8 billion project, officials settled on the Direct Feed Low-Activity Waste plan that allows the completion of a Low-Activity Waste Treatment Facility years ahead of the high-level portion of the plant. As part of that project, crews need to complete the Low-Activity Waste Treatment Facility along with the Analytical Laboratory and 20 support structures. 

The lab will serve as a process link between the Pretreatment, High-Level Waste Vitrification and Low-Activity Waste Vitrification facilities. At 320 ft long and 180 ft wide, the lab is approximately the size of a football field. The concrete building reaches four stories high. 

The lab’s key function is to confirm that glass produced by the Low-Activity Waste Vitrification Facility meets regulatory requirements and standards. During waste treatment operations, lab staff will analyze about 3,000 process samples annually to confirm a high-quality glass product and good process controls. Analysis will also confirm the correct glass-former recipe needed to produce a consistent glass form. 

“Our Analytical Laboratory is a key component of meeting regulatory requirements for tank waste treatment,” Tom Fletcher, WTP federal project manager and direct-feed low-activity waste program manager for the DOE’s Office of River Protection, said in a statement. “The work to develop analytical processes, procedures and methods is an important step to being ready to treat low-activity waste and preparing the workforce for the upcoming commissioning phase.”

Over the next 18 months, more employees will be hired, trained at an offsite lab and then transferred to the onsite lab. 

“The chemists represent another group of permanent positions to support plant commissioning, along with 95 commissioning technicians currently working in the control room of the plant’s Low-Activity Waste Facility Annex and throughout the plant,” Valerie McCain, a principal vice president and project director for Bechtel, said in a statement. 

The chemists first worked at a smaller-scale offsite lab at nearby Columbia Basin College in Pasco and during the past year the lab team collaborated with Vit Pant engineers to analyze glass made from a slurry of low-activity waste simulant and glass-forming materials. The same analytical method will verify the glass vitrified in the real facility meets DOE standards. 

Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb