Vitrification Plant Costs to Rise by $4 Billion, Completion Delayed by 4 Years 

(Washington, DC) – According to an internal federal report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mismanagement has plagued the construction and development of the Hanford vitrification plant, a facility designed to mix high-level nuclear waste with glass. The study, completed in May, estimates that the plant’s construction budget could rise by nearly $4 billion, from $5.8 billion to $9.65 billion. Additionally, the report details that the plant’s schedule to start full production is delayed until 2015, four years behind schedule. The report was the basis for a front-page article appearing in today’s Seattle Times. GAP does not have a copy of the report.

“The situation has been out of control for some time, and the taxpayers are the ones flipping the bill,” stated Tom Carpenter, GAP Nuclear Oversight Program Director. “The vitrification plant has been a money pit since its construction. This report illustrates the necessity of more thorough and transparent oversight. The American taxpayer deserves an explanation, and the people of Washington and Oregon deserve to know that they can live in safety.”

GAP has closely watched and monitored the construction of the vitrification plant for years, consistently calling for increased oversight and independent review. The facility originally cost $5.6 billion dollars to build, with an additional $45-$60 billion more to operate it for 28 years. However, the project was “fast-tracked,” meaning that construction of it began prior to the final designs being set. As a result, the project was put on hold this past summer due to a lack of foresight to make the facilities earthquake-proof, a necessity for any plant dealing with any production involving high-level nuclear waste. For an additional history of the vitrification plant, check our vitrification plant page.

One major problem with the plant is a lack of transparent oversight. The process is locally controlled by the Office of River Protection (ORP), which is a subset of the Department of Energy (DOE). For this project and others, the DOE previously worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent agency established by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 to regulate civilian use of nuclear materials.

A 2001 NRC report stated that there’s a 2.4 percent annual risk of a major radiological or chemical accident occurring within the vitrification plant each year over the 28-year expected lifespan usage, if no future correctional steps were taken. This works out to a 50 percent chance of a major incident over the course of the lifespan of plant operations. Later that year, DOE cut its ties to the NRC, leaving only DOE-controlled ORP to address the issues. DOE has never issued a response to the NRC report. GAP collaborated on a report released last year detailing additional major problems with the plant that also resurrected this issue. This 2004 report was authored by Robert Alvarez, a former Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment. It is available on GAP’s Web site. The report was published in Princeton’s Science and Global Security Newsletter in May 2005.

NRC was the last independent agency to review the project. Since that time, DOE has altered plant designs and sped up construction to save on costs. GAP has been advocating for NRC to become involved in overseeing the plant by giving its concurrence authority over plant design and operation.

“This is yet another justification of the public’s fears that nuclear materials are being handled in an incompetent manner,” added GAP’s Carpenter.