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Originally published November 21, 2011 at 5:00 PM | Page modified November 21, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Feds: New Hanford plant might miss budget, deadlines

One of the federal government's largest construction projects is unlikely to be completed under its current $12.3 billion budget and some deadlines are in jeopardy of being missed, according to a new review the U.S. Department of Energy released Monday.

The Associated Press

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YAKIMA — One of the federal government's largest construction projects is unlikely to be completed under its current $12.3 billion budget and some deadlines are in jeopardy of being missed, according to a new review the U.S. Department of Energy released Monday.

The findings mark the latest in a string of cost overruns and delays for a nuclear-waste treatment plant at Eastern Washington's Hanford nuclear reservation.

The plant, which is 60 percent complete, is being built to convert highly radioactive waste into a safe form for permanent disposal.

The Energy Department's rating for the project, which is based on whether it will meet costs and schedules, is likely to be downgraded in the next few days, said Dave Huizenga, the DOE's acting assistant secretary for environmental management.

Huizenga said the agency would be notifying the Justice Department and the states of Washington and Oregon that some deadlines may be in jeopardy. He did not specify which deadlines.

The plant is scheduled to begin operating in 2019 under a consent decree signed by a judge 13 months ago. Other milestones also are in place to ensure the project remains on pace to meet that deadline.

"Obviously, this is important to the citizens of the Northwest," Huizenga said, noting the project's importance to the agency as well. "We want to work closely with the other parties and make sure we bring this project home safely and as closely on budget as possible."

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades.

The cornerstone of that cleanup is the massive plant to convert highly radioactive waste in underground tanks into glasslike logs for permanent disposal. Technical problems have long delayed construction of the so-called vitrification plant, pushing the plant's operating date to 2019, and the cost has ballooned from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $12.26 billion.

The deadline was pushed to 2019 when it became clear a 2011 deadline would be missed.

State and federal officials consider the work crucial because at least 1 million gallons of waste have leaked from the tanks, contaminating the groundwater and threatening the nearby Columbia River.

The latest review projects that the plant will be $800 million to $900 million over budget. Potential decreases to annual funding for the project could further exacerbate the project's overall costs and schedule, the review said.

The government spends $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup — one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally. About $690 million of that is appropriated for plant construction.

The 65-acre Hanford complex includes three major nuclear facilities, a laboratory and 21 smaller support buildings.

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