YAKIMA – The company hired to design and build a massive plant at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site should no longer have authority over its design, according to an internal U.S. Department of Energy memo released Tuesday.
The memo raises more questions about a waste treatment plant project long viewed as critical to ridding the Pacific Northwest of pollutants left from decades of weapons production for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but one that has endured countless technical problems, delays and skyrocketing costs.
It also raises more concerns about the contractor at the center of the mix, Bechtel National Inc., which has come under fire in recent months from critics who say the company has suppressed employee concerns related to the plant’s safety and retaliated against whistleblowers.
The memo noted 34 instances where Bechtel National provided information that was incorrect, technically unfeasible or failed to provide the best value to the government, among other things, while designing the $12.3 billion plant at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
“The behavior and performance of Bechtel Engineering places unnecessarily high risk that the WTP design will not be effectively completed,” Gary Brunson, the Energy Department’s engineering director assigned to the project, said of the waste treatment plant in a memo to top Energy Department managers Thursday.
“This memo details exhaustive and disturbing evidence of why Bechtel should be terminated from this project and subject to an independent investigation,” Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group that monitors cleanup efforts, said in a statement.
Bechtel project director Frank Russo said the findings highlight how the project – and the demands on the contractor – have changed in the past decade, rather than failures by the company.
Russo said the company and the Energy Department have hired hundreds of consultants who are experts in their fields to review calculations and design decisions for a project where the available information is constantly changing – including the cost and scope.
“If we ignore new information, we can finish it on price and we can finish it on schedule, and it would look like an ideal project that would make some people happy,” he said. “But if we review new information as it becomes available, it’s not failure.”
The plant’s unresolved issues include inadequate mixing of the waste, which could lead to a buildup of flammable gases or a small risk of creating a nuclear reaction inside the plant, and whether the rate of corrosion in piping and vessels will hold the radioactive waste. The issues are of particular concern because workers will be barred from entering highly radioactive areas of the plant – and repairing potential problems – once it is operating under the current design.
Design of the plant is 85 percent complete, and construction is more than 50 percent complete.
The plant had been scheduled to begin operating in 2019, but the Energy Department has said a new estimate on the plant’s start date and cost will be pushed off for at least a year while it embarks on additional tests to resolve those problems.