Waste Treatment Plant

Flawed pretreatment technology: pipes developed holes after testing in December of 2010.

Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant is a cornerstone of the Hanford cleanup.  This facility is too important to fail: the plant’s job will be to mix millions of gallons of high level nuclear waste with glass so that it is immobilized, transportable and most importantly,  will prevent the radioactive waste from leaking out of the tanks it is currently stored in.  Unfortunately, whistleblowers have come forward with serious technical and safety concerns for the plant.  See a timeline of reports on the Waste Treatment Plant from 2001 to the present.

According to the Department Of Energy, as of November 14, 2013 there are about 2,300 employees working for Bechtel and URS on the Waste Treatment Plant Project. The latest budget allocation allocation for the project is $675 million under the 2013 Continuing Resolution.

Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant has become known mostly for its cost overruns, design problems, and delays. Hanford Challenge is concerned that insufficient quality control could make the plant prone to disastrous accidents and is promoting the exploration of new technologies to stabilize Hanford’s tank waste.

In this section, you will find:

News Coverage


The Waste Treatment Plant is over 60% constructed, despite serious design concerns.

The Waste Treatment Plant (WTP), also known as the “Vit Plant,” is the largest, most expensive environmental remediation project in the world. Still under construction, the job of the WTP is to stabilize the large inventory of high-level nuclear waste from Hanford’s Tank Farms in glass logs, a process called vitrification. WTP is a one-of-a-kind facility built to solve an incredibly complicated problem and has encountered several setbacks – both foreseeable and unforeseeable.

In 2000, DOE awarded Bechtel National, Inc. a $4.3 billion, 11 year contract to design and construct a plant to treat the entire 53 million gallon radioactive and hazardous tank waste inventory, to be operational in 2007. Nine years later, the cost estimate has nearly tripled to $12.3 billion while performance expectations have dwindled. Now, only half of the underground tank waste will be vitrified in the WTP, due to issues with the chemistry of the waste. The plant is now scheduled to open in 2019 (an optimistic assessment) and will cost $45 – $60 billion to operate over its 28 year expected lifespan.

Our Concerns

Setbacks aside, Hanford Challenge is most concerned with safety and quality issues at the Vit Plant and DOE and Bechtel’s lack of transparency in resolving them. Throughout WTP’s design and construction many avoidable flaws have been exposed. There is no doubt that the stabilization of Hanford’s tank waste is a complex challenge that presents design and construction challenges. While some corrective actions have been taken, uncertainty about the quality of the materials and an overly complex design has created a complicated mess that seems to be spinning out of control. Some examples:

  • Quality Assurance is the overall system required by the government to ensure a nuclear facility meets exacting material and design standards to ensure safe operation. The failure of even one component in a nuclear setting can be a very serious matter. In 2008, an independent engineering firm (Dana Engineering) conducted a review of the WTP on behalf of Washington State’s Department of Ecology. They concluded that Bechtel is failing to fully meet critical aspects of the Quality Assurance criteria. This leads Quality Assurance experts we’ve consulted to declare the WTP “quality indeterminate.”
  • Some processes at WTP will take place in so-called “black cells”, which, once made operational, can never again be entered by because of the intense radiation. The equipment in black cells – the valves, piping, electrical switches, etc. – is expected to last the lifetime of the WTP without any maintenance or replacement. Because of the extremely high temperatures required the reality that nuclear waste is among the most toxic materials on Earth, the integrity of the facility must meet exacting standards for equipment, parts, and quality of work to prevent catastrophe. Unfortunately, there is a high degree of uncertainty about Bechtel’s Quality Assurance regime – see above.
  • In a now-famous example of a foreseeable design flaw (see video at right), the Vit Plant was built to an insufficient seismic standard, costing billions to correct and adding years of delay.
  • Chemistry issues unique to Hanford’s tank waste, high levels of chromium, aluminum and sulfate, make it more difficult to vitrify. Overcoming these issues necessitate diluting the waste and the addition of more chemicals – sodium hydroxide. These measures will increase the quantity of vitrified “product” but decrease the amount of tank waste that can be stabilized in the glass.
  • Delays in construction can actually harm the WTP equipment. As parts await installation, they are exposed to weather and may become corroded to the point that they present maintenance challenges and safety risks.
  • Design flaws have lead to construction workarounds that can change how waste will be transported. In some cases it is uncertain if the thick waste – often described as having the consistency of peanut butter – will be able to travel through the designed pathways due to improvised sharp curves in piping.

Walter Tamosaitis & Current WTP Concerns

We moved the updates on Dr. Walter Tamosaitis and his case to a different page!  You can find updates and information here.

New Ideas Needed!

Hanford Challenge is very concerned about the state of the Waste Treatment Plant. The DOE needs to rethink its goals for this troubled facility and seek alternative methods to stabilize the 53 million gallons of waste before more of it leaks from aging underground tanks, contaminates the groundwater and really becomes a problem.

Russian engineers have developed a formulation of glass for their nuclear waste vitrification program that may be helpful at Hanford. An American process engineer has concluded that the iron phosphate glass used in Russia is robust enough that it can stabilize Hanford’s waste without needing the most complicated part of WTP, the Pretreatment Facility, with its complex chemical processes and ultrafiltration systems.

There are methods of stabilizing the waste while it remains in the tanks. Crystal fractionalization and Spin Tech filtration both hold out some promise to reduce the risk to our groundwater, Columbia River and wider region posed by Hanford’s tank waste.


Additional links:

  • 2010 Letter on Criticalities and Fires could result from design failures in mixing of Hanford Waste, letter from Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
  • Anonymous letter from someone “on the ground at WTP” describing the reasons why Quality Assurance and Quality Control are in poor condition at the vit plant.
  • Nuclear Regulator Commission report, NUREG 1747, a 2001 report cataloguing Bechtel’s Quality Assurance deficiencies at WTP.
  • Reducing the Risks of High-Level Radioactive Wastes at Hanford, Princeton’s Science and Global Security, by Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies, 2005
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report, “Review of US Department of Energy’s Regulatory Processes at Hanford Waste Treatment Plant”
    • Evading the Issue: A review of the August 2008 Report to the U.S. Congress about safety regulation at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Waste Treatment Plant” by Robert Alvarez
  • WTP: The Science Behind the Setbacks, a Hanford Challenge fact sheet
  • Report, PNNL, Technical Concerns Related to the Waste Treatment Plant, June, 2010
  • Report, DOE Office of Health Safety and Security on Waste Treatment Plant, Feb 2009
  • GAO, Contractor and DOE Management Problems have led to Higher Costs, Construction Delays and Safety Concerns, April 6, 2006
  • Letter, from DOE to Bechtel, “Employee Concerns Inquiry at WTP”, January 18, 2005
  • GAO, DOE Needs to Strengthen Controls over Contractor Payments, July 2007
  • GAO, Uncertainties and Questions about Costs and Risks Persist with DOE’s Tank Waste Cleanup Strategy at Hanford, September 2009
  • GAO,  Absence of Key Management Reforms on Hanford Cleanup Adds to Challenges, June 2004
  • Report, Comprehensive Review of the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant Flowsheet and Throughput (Best and Brightest), March 2006
  • Report, Army Corps of Engineers, Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, May 2005, Part II
  • Our Mission

    To help create a future for Hanford that secures human health and safety, advances accountability, and promotes a sustainable environmental legacy.

  • Find us on:

  • Join the conversation!

  • Hanford Challenge

    219 First Avenue S - Ste 310
    Seattle, WA 98104

Sign Up for Our Mailing List
* = required field