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Problems at Hanford & lessons from Rocky Flats

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

In September 2011, work crews demolished the second coal-burning power house at the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy)

A recent report about a possible leak at the Hanford Nuclear Site once again illustrates some key engineering challenges at the nation’s nuclear weapons sites. A legacy of the past, the waste from weapons production must be neutralized or safely disposed of without generating enormous costs.

The current dilemma at Hanford is a stark illustration of this challenge. Hanford, an enormous Superfund site, stores more than 53 million gallons of high-grade radioactive and hazardous waste in 177 large underground storage tanks. A third of the underground tanks storing waste today have leaked sometime in the past and many others are old. The tanks pose a potential contamination risk to the Columbia River, the most important waterway in the region.

Engineering challenges posed by this situation include removal of waste from the tanks without increasing the risk of leakage, finding places to dispose of the waste after removal, and transforming the waste into a benign form for storage.

All of this must be accomplished under close scrutiny by Washington State, the Environmental Protection Agency and the public.

I was part of the Rocky Flats clean-up. One of the key lessons from that effort is that to be successful given the many unknowns and numerous stakeholders with differing objectives, we engineers must be convincing in articulating clear solutions and skilled in building teams with our work force and our stakeholders. When all involved are aligned, great things can be accomplished.

The Department of Energy is constructing a $13 billion plant to vitrify most of the 53 million gallons of tank waste. But numerous engineering problems involving chemical mixtures, mixing tanks and pulsejets could delay the 2019 start date.

Maj. Gen. (Ret) Peter Offringa Senior Advisor

A former Deputy Commander and Deputy Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pete Offringa served as an advisor on the Rocky Flats nuclear power plant cleanup effort in 2000.


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