15 June 2010

Hanford's Vitrification Plant at a Pivot Point

The Deputy Secretary of Energy, Daniel Poneman, visited Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant yesterday.  The Waste Treatment Plant, also called the vitrification plant, or the "vit" plant for short, is a massive public works project on the Hanford Site which will turn the 53 million gallons of High-Level Nuclear Waste into glass.  The vitrification process does not reduce radioactivity, but it converts the liquid/sludge waste into glass logs, which are more stable in the environment.

The vitrification plant project, historically, has been fraught with budget and design issues and delays. Below you can view a 60 Minutes expose of some of the design issues from a few years ago:

Thankfully, many of the technical issues previously identified have been resolved.  One outstanding issue remains - a technical issue with designing equipment for mixing the wastes, reports Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald.  Department of Energy Headquarters recently has taken more interest in oversight of the project, exemplified by Poneman's visit this week and the appointment of a new federal project manager earlier this spring.

For more information about technical and budget issues with the Waste Treatment Plant, read the Government Accountability Office's 2006 congressional testimony (pdf).  Here's a graph from the testimony of the ballooning budget as of 2006.  The budget is now $12.2 billion:

Completing the Waste Treatment Plant on a reasonable schedule (the most recent delays pushed back the "hot-start" date to 2019), maintaining its budget, and ensuring that it will function as planned are all in the public's interest to protect the environment and human health.  The High-Level Nuclear Waste, currently stored in underground tanks which have leaked over one million gallons, is one of Hanford's greatest threats to the environment and public health, and the Waste Treatment Plant is the major effort to address these wastes.  The Department of Energy has acknowledged this, and Poneman reiterated this yesterday, saying, "This project is really important to the nation. It's really important to the department. It is really important to the secretary.  We are committed to fulfilling our obligations to the state."

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