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Cleanup of contaminated nuclear site advances

Construction continues on a waste treatment plant at south-central Washington's Hanford nuclear reservation north of Richland, Wash., June 15. The U.S. Department of Energy, which manages cleanup at the highly contaminated site, said the plant should be 50 percent complete by early fall.   AP Photo by Shannon Dininny

Construction continues on a waste treatment plant at south-central Washington's Hanford nuclear reservation north of Richland, Wash., June 15. The U.S. Department of Energy, which manages cleanup at the highly contaminated site, said the plant should be 50 percent complete by early fall. AP Photo by Shannon Dininny

Shannon Dininny
AP Writer

Richland, WA (AP) — Workers at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site are approaching a key turning point in building a massive waste treatment plant, more than two years after the project was halted over seismic concerns.

The vitrification plant at south-central Washington state’s Hanford nuclear reservation is among the largest industrial construction projects nationally, both in cost and sheer size. It has been mired in technical problems, delays and escalating costs, even as state and federal officials underscored its importance for ridding Hanford of radioactive waste.

But workers expect to finish 50 percent of the project by early fall, and just two of a long list of technical problems remain to be resolved.

Neither milestone means the end is in sight, but recent progress can’t be overlooked, said Suzanne Dahl, tank waste treatment manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, which regulates the federal government’s cleanup efforts.

“Wouldn’t it be great to be on the other side of 50 percent and heading downhill?” Dahl said. “That’s a really big deal. It means we’re just getting closer and closer to being able to turn it on.”

John Eschenberg, project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy, said the project is in as good a situation as it’s ever been.

“It’s been a bumpy road,” he said. “But the things that made us sweat blood are key to the success.”

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Plutonium production continued through the Cold War, leaving a mess of radioactive debris and waste to be cleaned up on the 586-square-mile site.

The government spends $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup — one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally. About $690 million of that goes for design and construction of the vitrification plant, long considered the cornerstone of cleanup.

The plant is designed to convert millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste into glass logs for safe disposal underground. At least 1 million gallons of waste have leaked from storage in aging underground tanks, contaminating the groundwater and threatening the nearby Columbia River.

The 65-acre complex includes three major nuclear facilities and a laboratory for analyzing, sorting and treating waste. Once completed, the largest building will stand 12 stories tall with the length and width of two football fields.

About 1,500 workers in hard hats bustle through the job site, and another 1,600 people work on the project in offices in nearby Richland.

In 2006, the Energy Department suspended construction for 22 months after an independent review concluded the agency had underestimated the force of ground movements at the site during a severe earthquake. Additional engineering measures were taken to fix the problems.

Engineers also used the down time to address 28 potential problems raised in a 2005 study. All but two of those problems have been resolved. They center on questions about the efficiency of waste mixing and an automatic sampling system, and Eschenberg said the agency and its contractor expect to resolve them by October.

The delays pushed the operating date to 2019, a step state officials were unhappy with but accepted. The cost of the project also ballooned from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $12.2 billion.

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