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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Former Manager Calls For Work On Hanford Plant To Stop

US Department of Energy

RICHLAND, Wash. – Federal and state officials announced this week that construction can partially resume at Hanford’s massive waste treatment plant now that some technical problems have been resolved. But a top former Hanford manager is calling for the Secretary of Energy to halt work altogether on the southeast Washington project.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu slowed work at parts of Hanford’s waste treatment plant last summer. He wanted to give a group of hand-picked experts time to look at the plant’s thorny design issues. This week Chu and former Governor Chris Gregoire said the solution is to bypass problem areas of the plant in order to get some other major parts treating radioactive waste by 2019.

But now, Gary Brunson, a former top government engineering director on the project, has asked Chu to halt work on the entire $12 billion facility. Brunson left the Energy department at Hanford about two weeks ago. His parting memo listed several problems that he thinks are not being addressed.

He argues that vessels used to hold and mix radioactive waste aren’t strong enough. And that certain calculations in the plant’s design that have been tested indicate a quote “systemic breakdown in quality.”

Meanwhile, Ken Niles -- head of the nuclear safety division for Oregon’s Department of Energy -- complains that Secretary Chu’s team has done most of its work behind closed doors, and hasn’t released any substantial findings to the public.

The Department of Energy released a statement late Wednesday saying, "Last year, the Department stopped construction work impacted by the technical uncertainties associated with the Pretreatment and High-Level Waste facilities.  The Department will continue, and as appropriate, ramp up construction work not impacted by the remaining technical issues.  The WTP Project will also continue to systematically address all of the issues in order to confidently resume the remaining construction and complete a safe and reliable facility."

On the Web:

Letter from Gary Brunson to Secretary Chu
Letter from Secretary Chu to Gov. Gregoire

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.