For nearly 25 years, the federal government has struggled to clean up a massive stockpile of World War II era nuclear waste.
The Hanford facility in Washington state has already cost taxpayers about $19 billion, and still the plant has failed to treat a single drop of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste that’s been sitting underground for decades.
Management issues and poor planning have sent the facility’s costs soaring over budget, and now federal auditors say lax oversight will likely tip the project even deeper into the red and behind schedule.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office, which examined the Department of Energy’s progress on the project, said that work supposed to be completed by 2011 now wouldn’t be done until at least 2019. The DOE still hasn’t agreed to any new deadlines.
The GAO blamed mismanagement and technology problems for the delays and cost overruns. “Contractor data indicate that significant, unresolved design issues remain, and recent internal and external reviews show that some facilities may require extensive and expensive rework,” the GAO said.
The Hanford site, a 586-square-mile complex, was built beginning in 1944 as part of the Manhattan Project. It was home to nine nuclear reactors, including the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, as well as five large plutonium-processing facilities.
When the weapons production reactors were decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, tens of millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste was left stored under the facility.
Now, the Department of Energy has proposed building two more facilities to "speed up" the process. The agency estimates each would cost at least $1 billion and take potentially eight years to construct.
However, the GAO’s latest report warns that the two structures would likely be far more expensive than officials are estimating, pointing at the problems the current facility has already run into.
“DOE's preliminary cost and schedule estimates for constructing the two proposed facilities are not reliable because they do not meet industry best practices for reliable cost and schedule estimates,” the auditors said in the report.
They added that the DOE failed to include some costs crucial to the project, which is being designed and constructed by Bechtel National Inc.
Beyond the cost and schedule delays, auditors raised serious safety concerns.
“In addition to cost and schedule overruns, the project has long faced technical and management challenges,” the report said. “For example, over the past 10 years, we have found that DOE’s Office of River Protection, which is responsible for managing the construction of the WTP, has been unable to successfully demonstrate the technology selected to prevent a nuclear accident.” WTP is shorthand for the Hanford Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant.
This is not the first time the treatment project has been flagged for waste and mismanagement. In fact, the Energy Department has abandoned several approaches for disposing of the waste—and it still hasn’t figured out what will work.
Just last month, Sen. Ron Wyden, (D- OR) asked auditors to probe into the Energy Department’s contracting practices at the Hanford site, after receiving internal documents from Bechtel National, Inc, the contractor, revealing at least $277 million tax dollars had been spent on incomplete work orders.
“The DOE has been mismanaging the cleanup at Hanford for three decades,” Wyden wrote in a letter to the Energy Department’s inspector general. “I am outraged that the Department claims it doesn’t have enough money to clean up Hanford yet allows such an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money has been spent and the citizens of the Pacific Northwest deserve to have this place cleaned up.”
The Hanford site isn’t alone. Other nuclear clean-up sites across the country have been flagged for management and oversight issues that have catapulted their cost far over budget.
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