Feds: We're at risk of missing 2 Hanford cleanup deadlines

Feds: We're at risk of missing 2 Hanford cleanup deadlines
A waste treatment plant under construction is shown behind a plastic fence on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — The federal government has notified officials in Washington and Oregon that it is at serious risk of missing two cleanup deadlines at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, the Energy Department said in a statement Friday.

A court-ordered consent decree governs cleanup at south-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, including a long list of deadlines for tearing down contaminated buildings, treating contaminated water and other cleanup activities. But the potential delays are not surprising given recent struggles there to empty underground waste tanks, some of which are leaking highly radioactive waste, and with delays constructing a massive plant to treat that waste.

The Energy Department notified the states about the deadlines out of an abundance of caution and continues to work with cleanup contractors to try to mitigate the factors that contributed to them, spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler said in a statement.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was expected to release more information later Friday.

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

Central to the cleanup: the removal of 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste from 177 aging, underground tanks, many of which have leaked in the past. The Energy Department announced earlier this year that six of those tanks are leaking outside their shells. A seventh, a sturdier double-shell tank, is also leaking into the annulus, the space between the two walls.

There have also been delays in a massive plan to bind the waste in glass for permanent disposal. Construction has repeatedly been halted on some parts of the disposal plant while engineers work to resolve questions about mixing and the potential for erosion and corrosion in some areas.

The so-called vitrification plant is among the largest industrial construction projects nationally, both in cost and sheer size. Originally bid at $4.3 billion, the price tag has since grown to more than $12.3 billion, a figure that is expected to rise even further.

Ten tanks have been emptied. Another five are scheduled to be emptied by Sept. 30, 2014, but that deadline is at risk of being missed. One section of the plant where construction is to be substantially completed by Dec. 31, 2014, is also in danger.

Hanford produced plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II, and for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal through the Cold War. A legally binding cleanup agreement, first signed in 1989, has been amended numerous times in the years since.

So far, the cleanup effort has cost $36 billion, and it is estimated it will cost $115 billion more.