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KENNEWICK, Washington • In eastern Washington, construction on the world’s largest radioactive waste treatment plant continues to move forward, with costs and delays that dwarf Idaho’s Integrated Waste Treatment Unit.

The Vit Plant, as it is known, is located at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford site outside Richland. It was built to treat 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste, residing in 177 aging underground tanks. More than one-third of the tanks have leaked, creating a threat to the nearby Columbia River.

Plans for the Vit Plant were announced in 1995. Construction by contractor Bechtel National began in 2002, before being halted several times, due to concerns about earthquake design and other technical issues, according to the Tri-City Herald newspaper.

At the DOE’s desert site in Idaho, Integrated Waste Treatment Unit costs have passed $800 million and continue upward by roughly $5 million each month. Treatment was planned to be completed by the end of 2012, but the facility has yet to treat any waste.

At the Vit Plant, meanwhile, a treatment start date also has continued to be moved out — from 2009 to at least 2019 — and costs have soared to approximately $13 billion. Treatment of the 56 million gallons won’t be completed for decades.

The Vit Plant will use vitrification technology to treat the waste, which also was one of the options proposed to treat the waste in Idaho, before a steam process was chosen. The technology involves mixing radioactive wastes with glass materials and melting them. The waste then is poured into canisters, where it cools and solidifies.

Some experts have said the vitrification technology should have been used in Idaho.

Here, it would have been more effective for the specific type of hazardous waste to be treated, they say, rather than the steam-reforming technology eventually chosen by the DOE.

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