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Hanford Vit Plant: A Solution to a Serious Threat

During World War II and throughout the Cold War, the desert of southeastern Washington state was home to a vast complex of nuclear reactors and processing facilities that produced plutonium for atomic weapons. The wars were won and the 586-square-mile Hanford Site was decommissioned in 1987, but 177 underground tanks on the site still hold an unfortunate by-product: 56 million gallons of liquid and semisolid nuclear and chemical waste.

The waste, if left untreated, poses a serious threat to the Columbia River, surrounding communities, and millions of residents downstream in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The challenge of removing and preparing the waste for long-term safe storage cannot be overstated, as 1 million gallons of radioactive waste have already leaked into the environment. None of the tanks isleaking today, but each requires constant maintenance—and all are corroding.

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded a contract to Bechtel to bring its expertise to this first-of-a-kind task. It wasn’t just innovative design and construction that the DOE was looking for. With its history as the nation’s leading commercial nuclear construction contractor and years of experience safely managing other government cleanups—including the DOE’s own Savannah River Site in South Carolina—Bechtel offered a sound safety and quality culture, a crucial complement to its ability to devise a safe treatment method.

Proven and prudent design

When operational, the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) will blend the radioactive waste with glass-forming materials and heat the mixture to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit by means of a a process called vitrification. The molten material will be poured into stainless steel canisters to cool and solidify. In this form, the waste will remain stable and impervious to the environment so its radioactivity can safely dissipate over hundreds to thousands of years.

In keeping with standard industry transparency and peer review processes, Bechtel’s design for the “vit plant” has been reviewed by hundreds of experts from government, academia, national laboratories, and the nuclear industry. The experts have validated that Bechtel’s design could effectively treat the vast majority of the waste.

Bechtel continues to update its design to address the results of ongoing reviews and to incorporate updated technologies. The complexity of the waste presents unprecedented challenges, so Bechtel continues testing and working with project and independent experts to resolve technical issues and confirm safety and quality throughout design, construction, and operation.

Safety and quality first

Bechtel has long cultivated a strong quality culture on all of its projects, built on leadership, employee engagement, and organizational learning. The company strives to be sure that everyone on every project is comfortable raising safety and quality concerns at any time.

Because it is one of the most transparent, intensely reviewed programs of its type, Bechtel has engaged leading outside experts to review its Nuclear Safety and Quality Culture at WTP. The reviews have found that WTP employees are aware of and frequently use the company’s many programs and resources for raising, evaluating, and addressing safety and quality concerns. Bechtel strives to continuously improve its safety and quality culture.

The right choice for WTP

Cleaning up the Hanford site is one of the most important public works projects in the history of the U.S. and will help write the final chapter of the Cold War era. With its quality, safety, and design know-how, no company is better equipped for the challenge than Bechtel.