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US demands safety of steel in nuke plants

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP)  The federal government is demanding that the company building a giant nuclear waste treatment plant in Washington state provide records proving that the steel used in the nearly $17 billion project meets safety standards.

The U.S. Department of Energy says in a letter obtained by The Associated Press that records needed to ensure that the structural steel used in the project is safe are either missing or of "indeterminate quality."

"This condition is a potentially unrecoverable quality issue," said the letter sent March 6 from the agency's Office of River Protection in Richland, Washington, to Bechtel National Inc., which is building the long-delayed plant to dispose of wastes created in the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The agency gave Bechtel National 14 days to provide proof that work on the project should continue.

The plant is located on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington, which for decades made most of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. The resulting 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous wastes are stored in 177 underground tanks, many of which are leaking.

The waste treatment plant is designed to turn much of that waste into glass-like logs for burial, a technically demanding process.

But construction of the giant plant, which began in 2002, has long been slowed by safety and technical issues.

Bechtel National is working on providing the records, spokeswoman Stasi West said.

"We have documentation that demonstrates the nuclear-grade structural steel meets project requirements," West said. "The safety and quality of the structural steel was never in question."

The letter from the Office of River Protection, which is named for the Columbia River that flows through the Hanford site, did not contend that the structural steel in the Hanford Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant was defective. Rather it says that records proving the steel can perform its safety function were missing or of poor quality.

The agency directed Bechtel "to promptly investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the procurement, receipt and acceptance of materials installed ... to justify the continuation of work," the letter said.

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