Hanford nuclear cleanup plods along

Critics say effort is a dysfunctional mess




WASHINGTON — The government’s multibillion-dollar effort to clean up Hanford, the nation’s largest former nuclear weapons site, has become its own dysfunctional mess, critics say.

For more than two decades, the government has planned and worked to dispose of 56 million gallons of nuclear and chemical waste in underground, leak-prone tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

But progress has been slow, the budget is rising by billions of dollars and a long-running technical dispute has sown ill will among some of the project’s senior engineering staff, the Energy Department and its lead contractors on the vitrification plant, where waste will be treated for disposal.

The waste is a legacy of the Cold War, when the site housed nuclear reactors churning out enough radioactive plutonium for thousands of atomic bombs. To clean up the mess, the Department of Energy started building the vitrification plant 12 years ago to encase the nuclear leftovers in stable glass for disposal.

Today, construction of the plant is only two-thirds complete, after billions of dollars in spending.

Technical personnel have expressed concerns about the plant’s ability to operate safely and efficiently, and some of them say the government and its contractor have tried to discredit them, and in some cases have harassed and punished them.

There’s an urgency to treating the waste before more of it leaks from aging underground tanks, making its way toward groundwater and then slowly toward the Columbia River.

Some lawmakers say Hanford has been an early test of whether Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, previously a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can turn the problem-plagued Energy Department around through improved scientific rigor and better management of its faltering, costly projects. They’ve accused his aides of standing by while a well-known whistle-blower was dismissed last month.

The Hanford project is one of a half-dozen or so uncompleted DOE construction efforts that the Government Accountability Office said earlier this year “continue to experience significant cost increases and schedule delays,” including a plutonium disposal facility at Savannah River, S.C., and a uranium storage facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that are each billions of dollars over their initial budgets.

Meanwhile, DOE officials are considering spending an additional $2 billion to $3 billion to help the Hanford plant safely process the waste. Doing so might delay the cleanup’s completion for years, the GAO estimated in December.

In an Oct. 9 letter, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., demanded that Moniz take new steps to ensure that the project’s technical experts are well-treated. Four organizations have reviewed their complaints, he said, and “all have agreed that the project is deeply troubled, and all have affirmed the underlying technical problems.”

Last week, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said at a confirmation hearing for the DOE’s general counsel that he worried “the message is out departmentwide that when you speak truth to power and come forward and lay out what your concerns are, you face these kinds of (retaliation) problems.” If that’s true, he said, “I think it’s going to be very detrimental to the safety agenda.”

Timetable slipping

Government officials and environmental activists agree that Hanford needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible. But the timetable keeps slipping: Thirteen years ago, the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington agreed to start turning the waste into glass by 2011.

In 2010, the deadline was extended to 2019, with a completion date of 2047. Moniz announced last month that the agency is likely to miss the project deadlines to start and commission the plant. Meanwhile, the estimated cost of the plant ballooned from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $13.4 billion in 2012, according to the GAO, with just some of the cost increase due to the plant’s capabilities being expanded.

On Sept. 30, the DOE’s inspector general, Gregory Friedman, issued an audit that said Bechtel, the project’s prime contractor, had repeatedly changed the design of plant equipment without a proper safety review, a problem Friedman called “systemic.” The DOE’s Office of Environmental Management responded that Bechtel has begun addressing these shortcomings, and it promised to monitor the company’s actions.

The report came 13 months after Gary Brunson, then the DOE’s plant engineering division director, told superiors in a memo that Bechtel had made at least 34 technical decisions that were incorrect, infeasible, unverified, unsafe or too costly, according to a copy. Frank Russo, Bechtel’s project director for the plant at the time, responded that the issues weren’t new and had all been addressed in concert with the department.

In addition to the cost increases, construction delays and critical reports, employees and independent agencies have said the DOE and contractor officials who are overseeing the project created a workplace climate that discourages employees from raising technical and safety concerns.

They say project supervisors have relentlessly pushed over the past two years to shorten testing and “close” technical issues by deadlines, meeting their benchmarks to gain financial rewards, even though the problems aren’t fully resolved. A DOE spokeswoman, Carrie Meyer, responded that “closing” a problem means only that a decision has been made to move forward with a credible solution.