The estimated cost of building a vitrification plant at America’s Hanford nuclear waste treatment facility has increased from $12.3bn to $16.8bn as a result of the need to accelerate construction to meet a deadline set by a federal court.
The announcement, made by the Department of Energy (DOE) on Friday (16 December), means that radioactive waste from 11 underground tanks that are in danger of leaking will begin to be turned into glass by vitrification in 2023, with full operation set for 2036.
The court made its decision in March of this year, but the DOE has just arrived at a figure for its cost implications.
The District Court for Eastern Washington ruled that deadlines already agreed by the DOE could not be extended for technical reasons. The judge in the case said: "These milestones should be viewed as enforceable legal duties rather than optimal, idealistic goals." She added that the department’s proposed extension mechanism would allow it to "proceed at its own rate without any safeguards for Washington or enforcement by the court".
The case, which has been running for almost 10 years, was brought by the states of Washington and Oregon in an attempt to prod the DOE into making greater efforts to clean up the Hanford site. Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, said at the time: "I have been repeatedly frustrated by the delays and lack of progress toward meeting key milestones in waste clean-up and treatment."
This part of the vitrification process, which is being overseen by Bechtel and Aecom, will deal with about 56 million gallons of low-level radioactive waste, the legacy of America nuclear weapons programme.
The Tri-City Herald newspaper of Washington State reports that treatment of low-level waste had been due to begin in 2019, but was delayed for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of corrosion, a build-up of flammable gases or an unplanned nuclear reaction.
The cost of treating of high-level waste at the plant is not included in the $16.8bn figure. Work on this part of the project halted in 2012 over technical issues.
In a separate development, Bechtel and Aecom agreed last month to pay $125m to resolve allegations that they made false statements and claims to the DOE by charging for "deficient nuclear quality materials, services, and testing".
The payment does not admit liability.
According to a Department of Justice statement, the settlement also resolves allegations that Bechtel "improperly used federal contract funds to pay for a comprehensive, multi-year lobbying campaign of Congress and other federal officials for continued funding at the waste treatment plant".
The allegations were initially brought in a lawsuit filed under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act by three workers on the plant, Gary Brunson, Donna Busche, and Walter Tamosaitis. They were later joined by the US government. The three will be eligible for a reward, although this has not yet been determined.
Mr Tamosaitis has already received a $4.1m out-of-court pay-out from URS, the engineer taken over by Aecom, for compensation following his dismissal. This was also made without admission of liability.
Image: The present state of the vitrification plant (Hanford Vit Plant)