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Problems Seen Impeding Cleanup of Ex-U.S. Nuclear Weapons Site

A long-running program to dispose of radioactive waste created at the onetime biggest nuclear weapons site in the United States is well over budget and behind schedule, the Center for Public Integrity reported on Monday.

Meanwhile, technical experts involved with the project say they have been punished for raising safety concerns, according to the investigative organization.

During the Cold War, reactors at the Hanford Site in Washington produced large quantities of plutonium that went on to fuel thousands of nuclear warheads. For more than 20 years, the federal government has been working to dispose of the 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste left behind. A vitrification facility intended to transform the toxic waste into glass is only about 66 percent finished, even though construction work began in 2001.

Vitrification work was originally expected to begin in 2011, but that start date was delayed until 2019 with an end date now expected for 2047. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in October said his department probably will not make the deadline for commissioning the plant. Concerns exist, though, that the Hanford waste will seep out of current underground holding tanks and enter the groundwater supply and ultimately the Columbia River.

At the same time, the projected expense of the facility has soared from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $13.4 billion in 2012, according to the Government Accountability Office.

A September audit by the Energy Department's internal watchdog found the government's main contractor on the project, Bechtel, had on numerous occasions altered the blueprints for plant machinery absent a safety assessment on the impacts of the changes.

Walter Tamosaitis, the project's onetime research and technical manager for URS, the main subcontractor to Bechtel, in 2010 was removed from the effort after he provided his bosses with a list of technical issues potentially affecting safety at the plant. He has since filed three different lawsuits over the matter and has seen each of those suits dismissed, which he is appealing.

URS and Bechtel both reject the accusations that they punished Tamosaitis for whistleblowing.

The Energy Department's nuclear safety board in 2011 concluded that what happened to Tamosaitis "sent a strong message to other ... project employees that individuals who question current practices .... are not considered team players and will be dealt with harshly."

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