Tri-City Herald: Imagined threats should not slow vit plant progress

Being prepared for natural disasters at Hanford is smart.

But over-analyzing the affect very heavy volcanic ash would have at the vitrification plant is a disproportionate concern.

There is nothing wrong with supposing different scenarios caused by a volcanic eruption, but a possible threat should not get in the way of treating the real danger of radioactive waste on the Hanford reservation.

Recently, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said it was concerned ash particles from a volcanic eruption could short out electrical connections and clog and wear down other mechanical equipment at Hanford’s vitrification plant, among other possible problems. The defense board gave the Department of Energy 90 days to provide it with information on how it plans to address those issues.

We hope this does not cause another major delay to the plant’s completion. There have been enough of those already.

Construction of the vitrification plant was halted by DOE in 2006 when seismic data indicated design standards were not adequate for a severe earthquake. There also have been other technical issues that have delayed progress and construction remains halted at key parts of the plant.

The vitrification plant is a one-of-a-kind facility designed to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from weapons plutonium production into stable glass form for secure disposal. It is wise to make sure the plant’s design is safe, as faulty construction could be catastrophic in the event of a natural disaster like an earthquake or volcanic eruption.

But those are worst-case possibilities. The real problem is the radioactive waste from World War II sitting in underground tanks waiting for treatment. At least one of Hanford’s single shell tanks is leaking waste into the ground.

Because of the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption back in 1980, it makes sense to study what would happen if any one of the five Northwest mountains spewed ash all over Eastern Washington again. So the vitrification plant’s current design work includes ash information from a 1996 report. However, DOE requested a new study in 2011 by the U.S. Geological Survey. It, along with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, concluded the initial ash study did not go far enough. That report said it should consider the impact of a higher-density ash and what would happen if it re-suspended in the air for a couple of months.

Bechtel National and DOE are trying to figure the details of the vitrification plant’s design, but now the Defense Board staff has said they believe there could be a “need for significant new designs, design revisions or retrofits to already constructed systems.”

Let’s hope it does not come to that. We want the vitrification plant to be as safe as possible, but we also want it finished. There needs to be a balance made between accounting for all possible what-if scenarios and the real hazard of radioactive waste needing disposal.