The plant in Hanford produced plutonium 70 years ago for the first atom bomb ever detonated at the New Mexico Trinity test site and also made plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II.
The plant was shut down in 1968, and an effort is under way to clean up the 56 million gallons of waste left from a half-century of nuclear weapons production. A 10-year effort to build a treatment plant to stabilize and contain the radioactive waste faces enormous problems, with critics citing design issues that could bring the plant's operations to a halt before much of the waste is treated.
An official technical review has raised concerns about the risk of a hydrogen explosion or uncontrolled nuclear reaction inside the plant that could damage critical equipment, shut the facility down or even allow radiation to escape.
"We're continuing with a failed design," Donald Alexander, a senior U.S. government scientist on the project, told USA Today.
"There's a lot of pressure … from Congress, from the state, from the community to make progress," he said.
As a result, "the design processes are cut short, the safety analyses are cut short, and the oversight is cut short. … We have to stop now and figure out how to do this right, before we move any further."
At least three federal investigations are under way to examine the project, funded and supervised by the U.S. Department of Energy, which own the Hanford site.