YAKIMA – The man who had been overseeing construction of a massive waste-treatment plant at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been transferred to a new job, an official with the U.S. Department of Energy revealed Friday.
The change marks the latest turn in the ongoing effort to clean up the most dangerous waste at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site. Central to that effort is construction of the so-called vitrification plant, which has been mired in cost overruns and delays for years.
The plant is being designed to convert millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive brew into glasslike logs for safe, permanent disposal underground. Roy Schepens assumed oversight of the project in June 2001, when he was promoted to manager of the Office of River Protection in Richland.
The Energy Department is transferring Schepens to a senior position at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, where he will serve as an adviser on nuclear materials management, according to an agency official who declined to be named because the transfer is a personnel matter.
The official called it a lateral move that will be made in the coming weeks. The department also has retained a search firm to find a replacement who has engineering and construction experience.
The replacement will be the fourth manager for the Office of River Protection since its creation in 1999.
Schepens was out of the office Friday and did not respond to a telephone message from a department spokesman seeking comment.
The federal government established Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The site produced the plutonium for the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II, and continued to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal through the Cold War.
Cleanup costs are expected to total $50 billion to $60 billion. The most dangerous waste is 53 million gallons of radioactive brew stewing in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked, threatening groundwater and the Columbia River less than 10 miles away.
The Office of River Protection manages private contractors hired to empty those tanks, as well as the company building the vitrification plant to turn that waste into glass.
During Schepens’ five-year tenure, Hanford workers emptied the first four tanks of waste. They also broke ground on the waste-treatment plant and ramped up design and construction. About $3 billion has been spent so far.
However, the project has myriad problems. A 2004 report found that the department had underestimated by 38 percent the force of ground movements at the plant site during a massive earthquake. That report forced a review of the plant’s design and, coupled with skyrocketing costs and other technical difficulties, prompted the department to halt construction last fall on large portions of the facility.
The plant is being designed as it’s being built, which has proven costly. The latest review estimated the final cost at $12.2 billion – far above the $4.3 billion estimate when the contract was awarded to Bechtel National in 2000.
The latest review also pushed the operating date to November 2019. The original deadline was 1999.
Schepens came to Hanford from the Savannah River nuclear site in South Carolina, where he had been assistant manager overseeing cleanup of 51 tanks that hold 34 million gallons of radioactive waste.
“He’s been a pretty dedicated civil servant out there and worked at really difficult projects for a long period of time, and at this point the department has decided to make use of his talents with nuclear waste management at headquarters,” the Energy Department official said.
“The project is in failure mode because of mismanagement and lack of oversight for the contractor. So getting a new manager makes sense,” said Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower group and project critic.
“On the other hand, I think Roy is a good man and did some good things,” Carpenter said, citing efforts to mediate employee concerns and improve communication with stakeholders. “Unfortunately, I think he came to religion a little too late.”
As manager, Schepens’ annual salary was $162,053.
In December, the Associated Press reported that Schepens had received $51,000 in bonuses over three years while at Hanford. About $18,000 of that was for 2001, when he worked at Savannah River part of the year.
His bonuses were part of nearly $400,000 the Energy Department had paid over three years to employees involved with the waste treatment plant project.
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