Can Bechtel Get the Job Done at the Hanford Site?

A Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear waste plant in Washington State is unsafe, broken, and mismanaged, according to a leaked internal evaluation, possibly adding additional delay to a project that has cost $19 billion over 25 years without treating any waste.

The report concerns facilities at the $12.3 billion Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) at the Hanford Site near Richland, Washington. Between 1942 and 1987, plutonium research and production at Hanford created over 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste, an additional 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste, and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater, all together totaling two-thirds of the nation’s radioactive waste.

According to its 2016 budget, the DOE has 50-80 percent confidence cleanup will be complete by 2070.

Most of the waste at Hanford is stored as slurry in underground storage tanks. The slush needs to be exhumed from the tanks and pumped into the WTP’s pretreatment facility, where it can be sorted according to radioactivity. Once separated, low activity waste will go to the WTP’s Low Activity Waste (LAW) Facility, the subject of the leaked report.

The LAW Facility “is unlikely to achieve operational status within the anticipated timescale or achieve an acceptable [capacity],” according to the report. The review was finished in October 2014, but kept under wraps until a confidential whistleblower leaked it to the watchdog group, Hanford Challenge.

The report found that the LAW plant has 362 “significant design vulnerabilities” which will almost certainly need to be fixed prior to the beginning of operations. The review notes that “unless resolved in a timely manner, these vulnerabilities are expected to result in unacceptable risk to the overall project mission.”

The review also identified eight areas of “fundamental weaknesses and breakdowns” in management by contractor Bechtel National, Inc.—issues that may have a “compounding impact” on the technical shortcomings of the LAW Facility. These include such fundamental failures as “discipline in design execution and control,” “analysis or understanding of production capability,” and “consideration of industrial safety and hygiene requirements.”

Such criticisms, along with several accusations of whistleblower reprisal, have defined Bechtel’s management of the WTP.

In 2010, a senior scientist named Walt Tamosaitis raised design issues that could cause high activity waste to explode in the pretreatment facility. Subcontractor URS Corporation then removed Tamosaitis at Bechtel’s behest. In an email discovered during court proceedings, Bechtel project manager Frank Russo wrote, “Congress is just looking for a reason to put Hanford money in other states….Our $50 million is still in play. Declare failure (of the mixing issue) and our $50 mil goes away.”

In 2011, a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board investigation into the Tamosaitis case concluded that “The investigative record demonstrates that both DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture at WTP that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgement, and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns.”

In 2012, then-WTP Engineering Director Gray Brunson, a federal employee, wrote a letter to the DOE identifying 34 instances where Bechtel provided information that was “factually incorrect,” design solutions that were “not technically defensible,” or otherwise “did not represent best value to the Government in terms of design costs, operating costs, or completion schedule.” These allegations were largely echoed in a 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the WTP and substantiated by a 2013 audit by the DOE Inspector General.

In his letter to the DOE, Brunson recommended Bechtel be immediately removed from the contract, and that DOE management consult agency engineers more closely, writing “unlike the contractor, Federal staff have no other motive than to represent the interests of the Department and the taxpayer.”

In response to Brunson’s allegations, then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu slowed construction of the WTP.

In 2013, his replacement, Ernest Moniz, authorized DOE and Bechtel to proceed with the WTP, but using a separate LAW pretreatment facility. The new facility is supposed to expedite the cleanup while DOE fixes problems with handling high activity waste.

In its amendment to the consent decree governing the Hanford cleanup, the agency claimed there were “no major known technical issues remaining with the Low Activity Waste Facility.” The DOE budget request for 2016, submitted last February, requests $690 million for the WTP and includes a $23 million boost from 2015. The budget highlights construction priorities at the LAW Facility, including backup power and ventilation systems that the internal report flagged for urgent review.

Since February, the GAO has raised even more questions about how Bechtel and DOE are managing the WTP. In a recent report, the GAO found that estimates for two new proposed facilities, including the LAW Pretreatment Facility, “are not reliable because they do not meet industry best practices for reliable cost and schedule estimates.” Nor have safety conditions improved. “Even with DOE’s actions to direct [Bechtel] to address problems with its design management and quality assurance programs, neither the department nor [Bechtel] can verify that WTP facilities’ current designs meet nuclear safety requirements,” the watchdog concluded.

In a statement to the Project On Government Oversight, Bechtel claimed the leaked report was an unreviewed draft, and that it has since “provided the review team our comments, correcting factual inaccuracies.” Bechtel claimed “Our analysis showed that fewer than five percent of the design review comments in that version were new, and none of them were major.”

A source inside Hanford told Hanford Challenge the findings had in fact undergone a process known as Record Comment Review, in which different stakeholders are given the chance to review the conclusions and provide comment.

The Department of Energy also provided POGO with a statement, saying “DOE is fully committed to objectively addressing the issues raised to ensure the protection of workers and the public and safe and efficient construction and operation of the Low Activity Waste facility."

It’s anyone’s guess how DOE will “objectively address” the issues at the WPT with Bechtel at the helm.

Bechtel has a well-documented history of waste, fraud, and abuse. It has paid nearly $400 million in contract penalties over the last 20 years, ranging from construction violations to mishandling hazardous materials to numerous cases of whistleblower retaliation at the Hanford Site. In 2014, the partnership managing and operating Los Alamos National Lab, which includes Bechtel, lost 90 percent of its award fee due to “significant or ‘First Degree’ performance failure.”

DOE’s less-than-objective relationship with Bechtel is also well known. In April 2014, the agency hired Frank Klotz, one of Bechtel’s top consultants, to run the National Nuclear Security Administration. Klotz required a special ethics waiver for conflicts of interest. As POGO wrote at the time, this “allowed [Klotz] to make decisions that could mean big business for his former client, at a time when POGO and Members of Congress are sounding the alarm about…costly nuclear weapons projects.”

Hanford is the world’s largest environmental cleanup project and has singular technical challenges, but those factors don’t explain the safety violations, whistleblower reprisals, and general futility of the WTP project. It’s time for DOE to stop throwing good money after bad contractors, and find a partner who is able and willing to serve taxpayers’ best interests.