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 the byproduct: 56 million gallons of liquid and semi-solid nuclear and chemical waste.
The waste, if left untreated, poses a threat to the Columbia River, surrounding communities, and residents downstream in the U.S. 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. Each tank requires monitoring, and all are beyond their life expectancy.
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 receive the waste from the tanks, blend it with glass-forming materials and heat the mixture to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, in 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. The complexity of the waste presents unprecedented challenges. Bechtel has collaborated with hundreds of experts from government, academia, national laboratories, and the nuclear industry in designing the “vit plant.” Bechtel continues testing and working with DOE, project and independent experts to make the remaining technical decisions and confirm safety and quality throughout design, construction, and operations.
Safety and quality first
Bechtel has long cultivated a strong quality culture 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 WTP 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. The reviews have found that WTP employees are aware of and frequently use the company’s many avenues 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 sound technical approach, strong quality and safety culture, clearly no company is better equipped for the challenge than Bechtel.