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Contractor at massive Hanford nuclear waste project rated ‘good,’ paid almost $6M

UPDATED: Fri., March 18, 2022

This photo from Aug. 13, 2019, shows a sign at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland. The Department of Energy said Thursday that Bechtel National earned $5.8 million, or 74% of the incentive pay available for its work on the $17 billion vitrification plant in the center of the Hanford site in Eastern Washington.  (Associated Press)
This photo from Aug. 13, 2019, shows a sign at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland. The Department of Energy said Thursday that Bechtel National earned $5.8 million, or 74% of the incentive pay available for its work on the $17 billion vitrification plant in the center of the Hanford site in Eastern Washington. (Associated Press)
By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

RICHLAND – Bechtel National earned what it said was its highest annual rating from the Department of Energy for its performance in 2021 as a Hanford nuclear reservation contractor.

“This rating is especially impressive as we have transitioned from construction and startup testing to commissioning,” said Bechtel project director Valerie McCain in a message to employees.

DOE said Thursday that Bechtel earned $5.8 million, or 74% of the incentive pay available for its work on the $17 billion vitrification plant in the center of the Hanford site in Eastern Washington.

A 74% is considered a rating of “good,” on a scale that includes higher ratings of “very good” and “excellent.”

Bechtel began building the plant in 2002 and is working to have the plant ready to start glassifying radioactive waste by the end of 2023 that now is stored in underground tanks until it can be treated for disposal.

The 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation is storing 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from the past production of almost two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

DOE reimburses Bechtel for the cost of supplies and labor at the vitrification plant, with Bechtel earning money based on its performance.

Rather than releasing the complete review, DOE in recent years has made public a scorecard that lists the fee earned and a brief recap of work that was done well and also areas needing improvement.

Thursday’s announcement covered only DOE’s subjective evaluation of Bechtel for the past year, and Bechtel can make additional money as it meets deadlines outlined in its DOE contract for completing certain work.

Bechtel has shown steady improvement in DOE evaluations in recent years.

In 2020 it earned 70% of available pay, which was up from 64% the year before. In 2017 and 2018 it earned only 48% of available pay.

Bechtel achievements

Among the achievements called out by DOE in 2021 was completing startup testing and moving on to commissioning of parts of the plant that will be used to treat low activity waste, the least radioactive of the tank waste and the first that will be treated.

During the startup phase, the many components of the plant, from the electrical system to a system that moves containers of waste, were tested and verified to be in safe and working order.

Commissioning is the final phase before treatment of radioactive waste and demonstrates using a nonradioactive waste simulant that the plant works as planned.

Bechtel also performed a successful loss of power test of the plant last year, showing it could keep critical safety systems operating while outside power is restored to the plant.

It will use melters heated to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit to heat up a mixture of glass forming material and radioactive waste to produce a stable glass waste form for disposal.

Once the first melter is turned on this spring, it must run continuously around the clock through its life span of at least five years.

DOE also was pleased with Bechtel’s work to complete training and qualify four shifts of commissioning technicians. It also continued to effectively manage telework during the COVID-19 pandemic with workers on site.

It continued to receive approval for needed permits from the Washington state Department of Ecology, a regulator on the project, for different parts of the plant needed to treat low activity waste, DOE said.

It also made continued progress on some past issues related to quality assurance of software and maintaining a work environment that encourages employees to raise concerns about the future safe operation of the plant without fear of retaliation.

Areas for improvement

DOE also identified several areas in which Bechtel could improve.

It needs to continue work on safely meeting schedules for completing work projects, DOE said. It also could do a better job anticipating changes in maintenance and staffing requirements.

It also needs to ensure that support programs – such as maintenance and engineering – are developed and implemented before they are needed during commissioning to keep work on schedule, DOE said.

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