More delays in completing a complex to process Cold War waste from Savannah River Site’s underground storage tanks could violate commitments made to South Carolina and trigger huge fines.
The $1.4 billion Salt Waste Processing Facility, which will use new technology to accelerate cleanup operations, was supposed to be working in 2009, then 2011, and then delayed again until 2015 – a date the U.S. Department of Energy now acknowledges “is no longer achievable.”
The newest delay, which could push completion to 2018, will compromise a federal facilities agreement that calls for the project to be operational by the end of October 2015, said Van Keisler, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act program manager for the state Department of Health & Environmental Control.
“We have not received any formal request to change that date as of yet, so in our minds that is still the date for the facility to be operational,” he told the SRS Citizens Advisory Board this week in Augusta.
Breaking the agreement, he said, could be costly, with penalties of $105,000 per day after October 2015.
“If a formal request comes in to change that date, we will evaluate that,” he said. “However, we do expect DOE to take every step possible to continue to meet that date or come as close to that date as possible.”
Tony Polk, the salt waste facility’s federal project director, said the plant is making progress and is now 62 percent complete.
The missed deadlines, he said, can be blamed on a two-year delay in the delivery of specially made steel tanks and recurring issues with the quality of material procured for the project.
“Finding welders who can produce in a nuclear-quality environment is a challenge,” he said, and many employees have been lured away to other sites because of increased competition for nuclear construction and nuclear waste workers.
“Generally, every time there is an outage in another part of the nuclear complex, they compete with us,” he said.
Citizens Advisory Board Chairman Don Bridges acknowledged the two-year delay in tank delivery but said there is a nine-year difference from the original completion date of 2009 and the newest estimate for 2018.
“You talked about a two-year delay in reference to receiving the vessels,” he said. “So where’s the other seven years?”
Polk said other issues included a string of changes in the project that shifted the facility to a higher “performance category” that triggered additional regulations and work.
Bridges also asked about the certainty of the 2018 completion date.
“There’s always the possibility of additional delays because there are always the risks of funding and other factors,” Polk said, adding, that the further the project progresses, the less the risk of major delays.
The project cost, he said, is under review and likely to increase by a still-unknown amount.
“Because of delays and additional work, the government has completed studies for a baseline change in cost,” Polk said.
The government’s findings will be compared with opinions from the project contractor – Parsons – to devise a new cost estimate later this year.
The Salt Waste Processing Facility will replace interim components of its existing Saltstone Facility, which opened in 1990 and was modified last year to improve its efficiency and to prepare it for new roles after the modern plant is completed.