Full construction on Hanford vit plant to resume in 4 months

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) - More than 300 workers will be added as Bechtel National prepares to resume full construction of a huge nuclear waste processing plant in about four months, officials said.

Many if not most of the additional employees may work in other states on design of the long-awaited $12.2 billion vitrification plant, which is supposed to convert highly toxic radioactive waste sludge at the Hanford nuclear reservation to glasslike logs for long-term storage, company officials told the Tri-City Herald.

Work on the pretreatment and high-level waste buildings has been stalled for more than a year because of concern about whether the overall project was adequately designed to withstand a severe earthquake.

The Energy Department plans to resume work on both buildings on Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, said John R. Eschenberg, the DOE's manager of the vitrification project.

Much of the hiring will be done in July, August and September, and by the end of the year the number of construction employees should rise to about 580 from 470 at present, not including onsite support staff, Bechtel spokesman John Britton said.

Those figures are in addition to 171 subcontractor employees now on site.

Bechtel is making about 30 job offers a week, partly to offset attrition among the approximately 2,500 employees working design and construction, Britton said.

The company also is boosting white-collar employment, including engineering staff, procurement workers and project control monitors who handle scheduling and management duties. Bechtel's goal is to add 200 engineering jobs for a total of 850.

Because of a high demand for engineers nationwide, Bechtel National has opened a satellite office in the San Francisco Bay area for engineers to work from there, and others will work from an office in Maryland, Britton said.

"That allows us to tap into Bechtel's engineering resources" as well as engineering schools and engineers who prefer to stay in metropolitan areas, Britton said.

Construction work has continued on a low-activity waste operation, an analytical laboratory and about 23 smaller support functions that would not be dealing with the worst of the waste and thus are not affected by seismic issues.

The vit plant is the centerpiece of cleanup work at Hanford, the nation's most polluted nuclear site. It is designed to convert liquid and sludge now stored in leak-prone underground tanks, and generated as far back as World War II from production of fuel for atomic bombs, into a stable form for safer disposal beginning in 2019.

Resumption of full construction depends on resolving the seismic issues by Oct. 1, officials said.

New bore holes have been drilled in the center of the 65-acre plant site, and sound waves have been transmitted through the rock and soil to indicate how much an earthquake might shake the complex. A report is expected early next month, and a final decision on whether to resume work is up to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

"The early indications of the data indicate results are very, very favorable," Eschenberg said.