Release of GAO report, leak of internal DOE memo raise questions about DOE decision to ‘ramp up’ construction at troubled site
WASHINGTON (January 18, 2013) -- Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, today sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging him to implement the recommendations made in a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the troubled Hanford nuclear site that was requested by Reps. Upton, Waxman, DeGette, Markey and former Rep. Stearns. That report, along with a leaked memo written by the nuclear project’s former director of engineering, found that the technical problems associated with the project were so severe that all construction on the troubled facilities should cease until they are suitably resolved.
“The Department of Energy’s recent announcement that it may ramp up construction at Hanford flies in the face of the reasoned recommendations to suspend it that are made in this report and by the project’s own top staff,” said Rep. Markey. “From hydrogen explosions to dangerous nuclear chain reactions, the potential consequences of continuing with these misguided plans prematurely could be devastating to the project, the workers, the environment and maybe even the public.”
The Hanford Waste Treatment Project is a Washington State facility that is supposed to treat millions of gallons of high level nuclear waste left over from Cold War nuclear weapons production that is being stored in 177 aging underground tanks, 70 of which have already leaked about 1 million gallons of waste into the groundwater, which feeds the Columbia River about 12 miles away.
The challenges identified in the GAO report released today, as well as by other experts, include the stunning possibility that the nature of the waste as well as the engineering of the facility could result in both nuclear criticalities (which are the chain reactions that are exploited during the detonation of a nuclear weapon) and hydrogen explosions (which occurred during the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns) if the project proceeds as it is currently designed.
The report also notes that the costs of the project have ballooned from $4.3 billion in 2000 to a staggering $13.4 billion today, and that additional cost increases and delays are likely to occur because the underlying technical challenges have yet to be resolved. Yet despite these glaring deficiencies, the report also found that DOE has prematurely provided financial performance awards to Bechtel, its contractor, for resolving technical issues associated with the project that later turned out to be unresolved.
But instead of maintaining the suspension on construction recommended by GAO and the project’s former director of engineering, earlier this week, the Department of Energy announced that it is ready to ramp up construction and that it may do so by bypassing the most problematic so-called “Pretreatment facility,” entirely, and instead feed waste directly to the high and low-level waste treatment facilities without first separating the types of waste.
Rep. Markey first wrote DOE about the problems at the Hanford site in November 2011 following reports that several senior scientists and safety officials had repeatedly raised concerns about the potential for catastrophic failures of the technologies to be used for the handling of high-level nuclear waste at the Hanford site, as well as about the potential for hydrogen explosions and radioactive releases in the event of a serious accident. For their efforts, staff were demoted, reprimanded or ignored.
In the letter sent today, Rep. Markey reiterated his requests for additional materials related to these alleged acts of retaliation, and requested numerous additional materials related to the budget projections for the WTP, the justification for ignoring the recommendations to solve the serious technical challenges associated with the project before resuming construction, and for information on how DOE planned to recoup the payments it made to Bechtel, its contractor, for work that turned out to be incomplete.
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