What is the Waste Treatment Plant?
The Seattle Times has called the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) the "most sophisticated garbage disposal on Earth."
The Waste Treatment Plant's (WTP, vit plant) mission is to immobilize millions of gallons of sludge-like, high-level nuclear waste in glass. This will involve removing and treating about 20% of the nuclear waste from 177 aging underground waste storage tanks to contain it in glass form. This glass will eventually be buried in a deep geological repository, which is not yet sited.
The Waste Treatment Plant is the largest environmental remediation project in the world. After several high-level engineers working on the project were terminated for raising concerns, the government has admitted that nuclear safety and design problems with the plant indicate that it may not function correctly or safely unless design changes are made. Government reports warned of potentially catastrophic nuclear releases if the WTP were to fail.
The US Department of Energy contracted Bechtel to design and build the vit plant. There are many unresolved technical issues with the design. Parts of the plant's construction are shut down until these issues are resolved.
Hanford challenge is very concerned about the state of the WTP, and has called for:
- The immediate construction of new waste tanks.
- A halt to work on the WTP, and the establishment of an independent entity to design a new path forward for treating all 56 million gallons of tank waste and determine if the WTP facility can be salvaged.
- The replacement of Bechtel with a company that has a history of honestly meeting its performance guarantees and instilling a strong organizational culture, safety culture, and safety conscious work environment.
- Stronger whistleblower protection laws for both DOE and contractor personnel at nuclear facilities, and criminal penalties for retaliation against whistleblowers. When found guilty, laws should stipulate that contractors are subject to punitive damages and are at risk of losing their contract.
Recent Developments and Issues
- In a series of assessments and reports, including in June 2015, the US Department of Energy (DOE) found that the safety culture at the WTP was seriously flawed. A significant percentage of the employees surveyed said they were uncomfortable in raising a safety concern. The Oct 2013 and Feb 2014 terminations of high-level managers are further evidence of a broken safety culture at the WTP.
- There are concerns about whether or not the WTP will be safe or licensable. The failure of the contractor to follow nuclear safety and quality rules is a serious concern that requires an independent investigation.
- Hanford Challenge continues to support whistleblowers who bring forward issues at the plant, and urges DOE to address the safety culture so that the plant can operate safely and effectively.
- A federal judge extended the deadline to have the WTP fully operational by 14 years to 2036. Work continues on parts of the plant that will treat low-level radioactive waste, but an internal report supplied to Hanford Challenge by a whistleblower identified 362 significant design vulnerabilities in the Low Activity Waste Facility.