19 April 2010

So who's in charge of Hanford's vitrification plant?

[vit-ri-fy (v): to change or make into glass or a glassy substance, especially through heat fusion]

If you've paid attention to Hanford issues for any amount of time, you're probably aware of the largest public works construction project in the United States that is currently progressing on site: the Waste Treatment Plant (aka the vitrification plant). The project has been fraught with delays, design issues and is billions of dollars over its original budget.

Last week, multiple news stories reported that the manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of River Protection at Hanford was no longer to oversee the construction of the vitrification plant. Shirley Olinger, as the manager of the Office of River Protection, had been in charge of overseeing the vitrification plant project since 2007.

A US Department of Energy (DOE) memo shifted the project to the DOE Headquarters in Washington, D.C. According to Annette Cary at the Tri-City Herald, "The federal project director for the vit plant at Hanford, Guy Girard, now will report to Dae Chung, DOE principal deputy assistant secretary for environmental management, according to a March 31 internal DOE memo." A DOE construction project review in August 2009 hinted that organizational changes were in the works in regard to Hanford's vit plant.

However, last Friday, April 16th, a second memo and organizational chart was released showing that Girard, the federal project director, is still to report to Olinger, the Office of River Protection manager. Yet, ties to DOE Headquarters in DC have been significantly strengthened; again, the Tri-City Herald reports, "A full-time program manager for the vit plant has been named for DOE headquarters. In that position, Ken Picha will oversee modification of the budget and evaluate program performance, among other responsibilities."

So why does any of this matter? The vitrification plant is designed to stabilize Hanford's nastiest High-Level Nuclear Wastes by mixing them with molten glass and storing them in steel canisters. It is widely accepted that vitrifying these wastes is the most protective action for the environment and human health. Construction of the vitrification plant was originally supposed to be completed next year, by 2011, but the time line has been delayed until at least 2019, with full operations commencing in 2022. Because this project has a long history of mismanagement of funds and resources (long before Olinger was put in charge), Heart of America Northwest has repeatedly advocated for increased accountability to finish on time and without wasting taxpayer dollars.

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