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Energy Department raises price tag to $16 billion for Hanford plant

FILE - In this March 6, 2013, file photo, a waste treatment plant under construction at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, FIle)

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - The price tag for a long-delayed facility to treat radioactive wastes left over from the production of nuclear weapons has climbed from $12.3 billion to $16.8 billion, making it one of the nation's most expensive construction projects, the U.S. Department of Energy announced Friday.

The increase is part of an effort to jump start progress on the Waste Treatment Plant, which is needed to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the nation's most polluted nuclear weapons production site.

Hanford is located northwest of Richland, Washington, and made plutonium for nuclear weapons from World War II through the Cold War. The site now contains 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive wastes stored in 177 giant underground tanks, some of which are leaking.

The treatment plant, also known as the vitrification plant, will turn the waste into a glass-like substance for stable, long-term storage.

"DOE is committed to addressing the environmental legacy of decades of nuclear weapons production activities at the Hanford Site in a safe and cost-effective manner." said Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Office of River Protection, which oversees the treatment plant construction.

The Energy Department said Friday that it had modified its contract with Bechtel National Inc. in an effort to speed up the work, which it called the "most complex environmental" project in the nation.

The contract modification includes incentives for Bechtel to complete sections of the plant by specific dates and for the contractor to share in cost savings for completing work early. It also includes sections to benefit taxpayers by reducing the fee for work that fails to meet deadlines.

"For the first time in nearly three years, we will have clear milestones and schedules - with fee incentives and disincentives - aligned with current activities," said Peggy McCullough, Bechtel project director, in a message to employees. "Clear expectations allow us better plan and prioritize our work."

The federal government is under deadline pressure from a federal court to begin treating the waste at Hanford.

The additional money would allow radioactive waste to be removed from storage tanks as soon as possible, rather than waiting until all parts of the vitrification plant are ready to operate.

The previous cost estimate of $12.3 billion was made in 2006 when the plant was planned to start treating some waste in 2019 and be at full operation in 2022.

Now the court-set deadline for full operation is 2036. The court is demanding that DOE start treating some low level radioactive waste in 2023, under an agreement with state and federal regulators.

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