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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.

Recent Reports Spur Controversy Over Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant

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US Department of Energy

  RICHLAND, Wash. – News out of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation can sometimes sound like just one critical report after another. In fact, last week a federal watchdog agency said Hanford’s massive waste treatment plant is in jeopardy. Several developments lately have intensified the debate over this question: Should a massive federal waste treatment plant move ahead or stop to fix its nagging technical problems?

Hanford’s radioactive waste treatment plant is so big, expensive and complex -- it’s gigantic really -- that the government has been building and designing it at the same time. Most now agree -- that approach is fraught with problems. The question is what to do.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office had one damning report. And a former engineering manager on the project had another.

Tom Carpenter heads a Seattle-based watchdog group. He says the Department of Energy isn’t coming forward with plans to fix the problems that have been raised over and again.

"We’re all focused on the future," Carpenter says. "It’s like what steps are you going to take in the future to make sure that these issues are addressed openly, transparently and in a manner that satisfies the technical community.”

Others say the Energy Department can still get some complex parts of the plant back on the right track. Dirk Dunning is a chemical engineer with Oregon’s Department of Energy. Dunning is pleased by one recent development. The U.S. Energy Department announced plans to do full-scale testing on waste mixing vessels that have been under technical scrutiny.

“It’s not something as simple as scaling that up to the size of a doing it in a coffee cup in a lab and then scaling it up to a bathtub size and then scaling that up to a full plant," Dunning explains. "It’s much more difficult than that.”

Meanwhile Washington Congressman Doc Hastings’ spokeswoman Jessica Gleason aired some frustration with the Energy Department. She said the agency has yet “to provide basic details about what work will be done to test and resolve technical issues, how much this work will cost or how long it will take to complete.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu hasn't declared whether or not he’s staying on for President Obama’s second term. He’s assembled a team to guide solutions to the plant’s design.

Still to come: yet another federal report. This time from an independent oversight and enforcement branch of the Department of Energy. It’s currently finalizing a review of Hanford’s waste plant project and work by the government’s lead contractor Bechtel.