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Report: Hanford vit plant failed to cancel unneeded purchases

UPDATED: Wed., March 1, 2017, 11:28 a.m.

A waste treatment plant under construction is shown behind a plastic fence on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
A waste treatment plant under construction is shown behind a plastic fence on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

Hanford officials failed to cancel some purchase orders after technical issues halted construction on part of the Hanford vitrification plant, according to the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General.

It released a report Tuesday that was requested by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in April 2015.

Bechtel National, the DOE contractor for the vitrification plant, responded to the criticism, saying it and DOE had “identified an innovative way to potentially repurpose equipment” that had been ordered but was no longer needed at the vitrification plant.

Wyden requested the office look into 56 purchase orders on which DOE contractor Bechtel National had suspended work. They were continuing to cost nearly $5.3 million a year, including for storing uncompleted parts and equipment.

Bechtel, which developed the cost estimate, had recommended in January 2015 ending 28 of the procurements and either completing or suspending the rest.

A report by the Office of Inspector General released Tuesday found that neither DOE nor Bechtel officials had taken all actions needed to terminate the 28 procurements, which would have saved taxpayer money.

It used as an example the five most costly procurements, which would have avoided $1.9 million in suspension costs in 2016.

“Had these procurements been terminated, these funds could have been used to accomplish other tasks,” the Office of Inspector General report said.

The procurements were for tanks that would have held high-level radioactive waste in the vit plant’s Pretreatment Facility as part of a process to turn radioactive waste from the past production of weapons plutonium into a stable glass form for disposal.

After former Energy Secretary Steven Chu said full-scale testing of the Pretreatment Facility tanks was needed, DOE developed a plan to use a standardized tank design rather than conduct full scale tests on the different types of tanks that had been ordered.

However, no decision is expected to be made on using a standardized tank design until full scale testing is completed, likely this year.

Bechtel spokeswoman Staci West said that four of the tanks and an evaporator originally purchased for the Pretreatment Facility may be used in an Effluent Management Facility being built at the vitrification plant.

The new 18,400-square-foot building would be used as part of a plan to start treating some low-activity radioactive waste as soon as 2022 at the vitrification plant. The Pretreatment Facility now is not required to commence operations until 2033, according to requirements of a federal court consent decree.

The Office of Inspector General report found that much of the delay in resolving issues with the suspended procurements, including the five most costly ones, was caused by an impasse between DOE and Bechtel over roles and responsibilities.

When Bechtel complete its analysis of suspended procurements in January 2015, it sent a memo to DOE that indicated it expected DOE to make a decision. In additional correspondence, it repeatedly asked DOE for concurrence on its recommendations.

DOE did not formally respond to the analysis until August 2015, when it did not specifically agree with recommendations but said they “appeared reasonable,” the Office of Inspector General report said.

Bechtel officials told investigators they wanted specific direction to avoid any questions on its actions. But DOE officials told investigators that Bechtel had the responses it needed to proceed and that specific direction could result in potential contractual liability from DOE directing actions on subcontracts between Bechtel and its vendors.

DOE has modified its contract with Bechtel to help resolve the impasse. But at the start of 2017 the five most costly procurements had not been terminated, the Office of Inspector General report said.

The report recommended that DOE and Bechtel take several actions, which DOE agreed were appropriate. They include reviewing the Bechtel contract to make sure requirements for managing procurements are clearly stated.

DOE also will require Bechtel to provide briefings every three months on suspended procurements or procurements proposed for suspension. DOE will do annual assessments of procurement costs and schedules.


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