Uncertainties with WTP persist, GAO says

May 18, 2020, 12:23PMRadwaste Solutions

The Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management has not followed best practices or DOE policy in pursuing alternatives for pretreating radioactive tank waste at the Hanford Site, near Richland, Wash., according to a report released on May 12 by the Government Accountability Office. The DOE has spent over $400 million since 2013 looking into alternatives to pretreating Hanford’s low-activity waste (LAW), yet the department has not properly defined a mission need or a life-cycle cost estimate for its preferred alternative, according to the report.

After technical issues with the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant’s (WTP) pretreatment facility caused the DOE to suspend construction on the facility in 2012, the DOE’s preferred alternative strategy for meeting its commitments and begin treating waste by 2023 has been to bypass the pretreatment facility and send separated LAW to the WTP’s LAW vitrification facility, an approach the DOE is calling direct-feed low-activity waste (DFLAW).

Analysis of alternatives: In a May 2015 report, the GAO called attention to the DOE’s shortcomings in defining a mission need statement or a life-cycle cost estimate for its DFLAW alternative (NN, July 2015, p. 63). In that report, the GAO recommended that the DOE revise its analysis of waste treatment options to consider a variety of alternatives. In April 2019, the DOE initiated an analysis of alternatives, which it expects to complete in September.

As of February 2020, however, the DOE had not yet defined a mission need for its new analysis of alternatives and did not have a life-cycle cost estimate for its baseline alternative, the GAO said in its report. “Without these, decision-makers will not have the information they need to make the best decisions for pretreating high-level waste, and [the DOE] cannot assure decision-makers that alternative approaches meet mission needs,” the report states.

The costs: The GAO report also noted that between 2013 and 2018, the DOE spent $752 million on the WTP’s pretreatment facility. More than half of that was spent on simply maintaining the partially constructed facility, the GAO noted, with the rest spent on resolving the facility’s technical challenges. The GAO added that the DOE has yet to provide an updated cost estimate for completing the pretreatment facility.

While the DOE and its contractor Bechtel National consider the WTP’s technical issues to be conceptually resolved, the GAO said, the department has yet to design, engineer, or test the solutions. The GAO also noted that the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the independent agency that oversees safety at DOE sites, considers the technical challenges to be unresolved.

To date, more than $11 billion has been spent on the WTP, $3.8 billion of which has been spent on the plant’s pretreatment facility. Under construction since 2000, the WTP is intended to vitrify Hanford’s 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical tank waste, stabilizing it for permanent disposal.

The full GAO report, Hanford Waste Treatment Plant: DOE is Pursuing Pretreatment Alternatives, but its Strategy is Unclear While Costs Continue to Rise (GAO-20-363), is available online.

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