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Originally published Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 9:41 PM

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Defense board holds public hearing about Hanford

The federal government is working to ensure that a nuclear waste facility under construction at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site will be safe, but it lacks the information to resolve some technical problems and establish a complete safety plan, a federal nuclear board learned Thursday.

Associated Press

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KENNEWICK, Wash. —

The federal government is working to ensure that a nuclear waste facility under construction at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site will be safe, but it lacks the information to resolve some technical problems and establish a complete safety plan, a federal nuclear board learned Thursday.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Board, which makes safety recommendations about the nation's nuclear facilities, traveled to Washington state for a public hearing about the waste treatment plant at south-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The $12.3 billion plant is being built to convert highly radioactive waste into glasslike logs for permanent disposal underground. The one-of-a-kind plant has long been considered the cornerstone of cleanup at Hanford, but it has experienced technical problems, delays and cost increases over two decades.

Most recently, several workers raised safety concerns, and some have filed suit as whistleblowers claiming they were targeted for reprisals for raising them.

An Energy Department review of safety procedures found that workers are reluctant to raise safety concerns, and some of those people working for contractor Bechtel National Inc. fear retaliation. The report also noted that, under Bechtel's federal contract, less than 1 percent of the company's incentives for additional payment address safety or health.

John David, a worker who has been associated with the project since its inception, thanked those who've "had the guts" to publicly speak out, "because they're absolutely right. Those that speak up, most, typically disappear."

Bechtel's project director, Frank Russo, said the company is working to improve its safety culture and alleviate any real or perceived fear workers have raising safety concerns.

"Our fundamental incentive is to get that waste treated," he said.

The board noted that the technical problems have been around since 2001, and years later, some remain significant questions about the plant's ability to operate safely and efficiently.

Donna Busche, a nuclear safety contractor who is among those who have raised concerns, said the quality of work produced by nuclear safety professionals was unacceptable in the past, and that officials chose not to question it.

"There wasn't that shared vision to understand, `What do we have to do to understand the hazards in design?'" she said. "You have to have the discussion, you have to have the tough conversations, or we're just not going to solve the problem."

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The site produced plutonium for the first atomic blast and for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal through the Cold War.

It houses 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste stored in 177 aging, underground tanks. Many of those tanks have leaked, threatening the groundwater and the neighboring Columbia River.

The plant's unresolved issues include inadequate mixing of the waste, which could lead to a buildup of flammable gases or a small risk of creating a nuclear reaction inside the plant, and whether the rate of corrosion in piping and vessels will hold the radioactive waste.

The issues are of particular concern because workers will be barred from entering highly radioactive areas of the plant - and repairing potential problems - once it is operating under the current design.

Design of the plant is 85 percent complete, and construction is more than 50 percent complete. It's scheduled to begin operating in 2019. But the board remains concerned about design issues and a "flawed" culture that affects the ability to identify and resolve safety issues, chairman Peter Winokur said.

"A learn-as-we-go operating philosophy is not prudent or safe for this facility," he said.

Energy officials stressed that no waste would come to the plant for treatment until they can ensure it will operate safely and efficiently. But when those technical issues will be resolved remained unknown.

The tone of the talks was collaborative and supportive, as it also has been in Congress, said Dave Huizenga, the agency's acting assistant secretary for environmental management.

The federal government spends roughly $2 billion each year for Hanford cleanup, $690 million of which goes toward the plant.

"There is a tremendous amount of bipartisan support for finishing this plant," he said, as well as a recognition that "it's going to take some time to sort these problems out."

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