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Senator questions Hanford plant subcontracting change

UPDATED: Tue., July 4, 2017

By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

A U.S. senator is questioning the new subcontracting arrangement at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s vitrification plant.

Bechtel National announced in January that it and its primary subcontractor were forming a new company that would do the construction, startup and commissioning of the massive plant as a Bechtel subcontractor.

Bechtel National holds the Department of Energy contract to build and commission the plant. Its primary subcontractor is AECOM, the second owner of the new subcontractor.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, late last week asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry to brief her staff on the subcontracting arrangement by July 21.

McCaskill questioned whether DOE’s oversight of construction and commissioning would be diminished under the new arrangement.

Transparency and accountability for the vitrification plant work are needed in the wake of a $125 million settlement that Bechtel and AECOM agreed to pay in November, said McCaskill, D-Mo.

“We know that these companies have fallen short on nuclear safety standards and used taxpayer dollars for lobbying,” she said.

The federal court agreement resolved allegations that the two companies charged DOE for materials and work that did not meet the exacting standards required for nuclear facilities. It also resolved allegations that Bechtel illegally used taxpayer dollars to lobby Congress for money for Bechtel’s work at the vitrification plant.

“I also have questions about the impact of this subcontract on performance and costs,” including any incentive pay arrangements between Bechtel and the new company, Waste Treatment Completion Co., McCaskill wrote in the letter to Perry.

She reminded Perry of the increasing cost estimates for the vitrification plant. In 2000 the project was expected to cost $4.3 billion and be completed in 2011, she said. The latest estimates show the plant likely will cost more than $17 billion and will not be fully operating until 2036, with some low-activity radioactive waste treatment starting in 2022 or 2023.

Construction on the plant began in 2002 to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

“(Waste Treatment Completion Co.) adds no additional costs to taxpayers and earns no additional fee,” said Fred deSousa, Bechtel spokesman.

Bechtel is working with DOE to provide answers to McCaskill’s questions, he said.

The contract structure between Bechtel and DOE remains unchanged and Bechtel will be responsible for Waste Treatment Completion Co.’s performance, he said.

Having a single subcontract for the on-site work of construction and commissioning is intended to safely manage job site activities after plans for the plant changed, Bechtel said in January.

Initially, construction of the entire plant was expected to be completed before it started up. Now plans call for starting up parts of the plant treating low activity radioactive waste while work continues on the facilities that will handle high level radioactive waste. Technical issues have delayed construction of those parts of the plant.

The change to a single company for on-site employees helps address the complexities of managing environmental, safety and health risks associated with concurrent construction, start-up and commissioning activities, deSousa said.

About 1,370 of the approximately 3,000 workers on the vitrification plant project were assigned to Waste Treatment Completion Co., Bechtel said in January.

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