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Key DOE Waste Cleanup Plant, SWPF At Savannah River, Faces New Problems On Start-Up

January 21, 2020 | BY GEORGE LOBSENZ

More than three years after the troubled $2.3 billion nuclear cleanup facility was completed at its Savannah River Site, the Energy Department is facing new problems in starting up the Salt Waste Processing Facility, with outside inspectors saying DOE has found “significant” shortcomings in final preparations by the project’s contractor to begin operations, including safety issues.

In two December memos, inspectors with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) said DOE has rejected key elements of an “operational readiness review” (ORR) conducted by Parsons to demonstrate that the plant it built for the department is safe for startup.

Further, the memos released earlier this month by the DNFSB—which provides independent oversight of safety at DOE nuclear sites—said DOE had “serious concerns” about corrective action plans developed by the contractor to fix problems flagged in that ORR.

At the same time, the memos suggested Parsons has pushed back against the adverse DOE findings about the contractor’s readiness to proceed to a DOE-conducted ORR and startup of the SWPF.

The safety issues are the latest in a series of setbacks at the SWPF that already have forced DOE to move back startup of the critical nuclear cleanup plant by a year, potentially jeopardizing DOE’s ability to meet a looming September 2022 deadline set by South Carolina regulators for removing millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste from the oldest of 43 aging underground storage tanks at the nuclear weapons and materials storage site near Aiken, S.C.

Startup of the SWPF is particularly important because those decades-old storage tanks are increasingly prone to leaks, and salt waste represents 90 percent of the 35 million gallons of mixed nuclear and toxic residues that remain in the underground tanks. DOE faces a September 2028 deadline to empty all 43 tanks at the site in preparation to close them in place.

The SWPF is needed to separate out cesium and other high-level radioactive materials in the salt waste so they can be solidified and eventually sent to an underground disposal repository. The remaining low-level waste stream, which constitutes most of the waste in the tanks, is to be mixed into a specially formulated concrete for disposal in shallow burial vaults at Savannah River.

However, despite the SWPF’s vital mission, DOE and Parsons have struggled for years to solve technical problems that have delayed construction and startup of the facility—a project launched by the department 18 years ago.

Parsons was initially selected by DOE in 2002 to design the SWPF and then won a follow-on contract in 2004 to build the facility, with a deadline for completion by 2009.

However, the project ran into immediate difficulty when the DNFSB raised concerns about whether the SWPF as designed would meet earthquake safety standards, among other issues. That prompted DOE to put the project on hold until design and engineering changes could be made to resolve the board’s concerns, which DOE acknowledged were valid.

Parsons began initial construction of the SWPF’s foundation and walls in September 2007, at which time DOE officials said they had a validated cost estimate of $900 million and a new startup date of 2013, four years later than previously planned.

However, due to continuing delays with the project, the department pushed back the startup date to 2015 and in 2007 deployed an interim low-capacity salt waste processing system, the Actinide Removal Process/Modular Caustic Side Solvent Extraction Unit, to maintain some progress on waste removal from the tanks.

The SWPF was finally completed in May 2016, seven years later than initially scheduled, and with an estimated $900 million in cost overruns.

Following that, Parsons launched a complex effort to commission the plant, which among other things required the development of additional infrastructure to link the underground waste storage tanks to the SWPF.

However, the project continued to be dogged by delays and technical problems, forcing DOE to push back the facility’s startup date to December 2018. The continuing severity of the problems was revealed in a highly critical “notice of concern” that DOE sent to Parsons in March 2018 in which the department said it no longer had confidence the contractor would meet a contractual deadline to commission the plant by December 3 of that year.

The letter raised a host of concerns about Parson’s management of key aspects of the SWPF, including safety analyses needed to show the waste processing facility has the necessary controls, operating procedures and design features to protect workers and the public from accidents or other operating problems during waste processing. DOE officials also said they had “lost confidence” in Parsons’ ability to provide accurate forecasts of costs and completion schedules, and that the contractor had failed to properly control SWPF operations, resulting in “numerous…reportable and off-normal operational events.”

DOE subsequently pushed back the deadline for SWPF startup to December 2019, only to run into the new problems detailed in the recently released DNFSB memos on Parsons’ ORR.

“In the final [DOE] report for the contractor operational readiness review, three objectives (fire protection, radiation protection, work planning and control) were graded not met,” the DNFSB inspectors said in a December 6 memo.

“In addition to ten findings, the report describes several dozen additional negative observations, many of which appear to be significant and several of which are related to integrated safety management guiding principles and core functions.”

The memo went on to say that despite the serious problems cited by DOE, Parsons quickly pushed for DOE to conduct its ORR—typically one of the final steps in the startup process—even though the contractor had completed only a handful of required corrective actions.

Two days after receiving DOE’s critical review of its ORR, “Parsons declared to DOE that they were ready to start the DOE ORR,” the memo said. “This was highly unusual since they had only completed 5 of the 21 pre-start corrective actions from their ORR….

“The scope of the planned corrective actions [is] also very narrowly focused (e.g., revise two radiation protection plans),” the memo added. “DOE management has expressed serious concerns with the above and plans to issue direction to Parsons imminently.”

Despite the tensions over SWPF startup suggested by the DNFSB memo, both DOE and Parsons said last week they were cooperating smoothly on resolving the problems, and that they still expected to meet the current deadline for starting up the plant in the first quarter of 2020.

“The contractor ORR objectives that had challenges were in the areas of fire protection, work planning and control, radiation protection and emergency preparedness,” DOE confirmed in a statement to The Energy Daily Wednesday. “At the department‘s request, Parsons submitted a corrective action plan to address the areas where objectives were not met.

“DOE and Parsons are working collaboratively to ensure the actions proposed by Parsons address the areas identified by the contractor ORR. The next step in the SWPF readiness process is the DOE ORR. DOE still expects the startup of SWPF to occur in spring 2020.”

Parsons issued a statement Thursday saying it will “deliver an operational Salt Waste Processing Facility to the Department of Energy in the first quarter of 2020, consistent with all previous obligations and negotiations. We are closely aligned and working collaboratively with the Department of Energy to address the contractor operational readiness review team’s findings. The Parsons team and the SWPF facility is on-track for the Department of Energy’s operational readiness review next month.”


Originally published by The Energy Daily

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