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News / Northwest

Safety record, leadership criticized for new $45B Hanford radioactive waste contractor

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: May 23, 2023, 7:27am

KENNEWICK — The losing bidder for a Hanford contract valued at $45 billion says the winning bidder has a poor safety record and that its proposed management team is not as strong as the Department of Energy determined.

It also says that the winning bidder, Hanford Tank Waste Operations and Closure, called H2C for short, failed to register in the federal System for Award Management for contractors and bidders. Registration was required to bid on the new contract to operate the Hanford tank farms and vitrification plant, making the winning bidder ineligible, it said.

Complaints were filed in a challenge to the bid award in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that was sealed by the court, but a heavily redacted copy of the challenge has been made public.

The challenge was filed by Hanford Tank Disposition Alliance against winning bidder H2C, a joint venture of BWXT Technical Services Group, Amentum Environment & Energy and Fluor Federal Services.

Hanford Tank Disposition Alliance, or HTDA, is a limited liability company comprised of Atkins Nuclear Secured, Jacobs Technology and Westinghouse Government Services.

According to the documents filed in the federal court case they were the only two bidders on the contract. Together they represent most of the key companies doing environmental cleanup at the nation’s nuclear weapons sites.

H2C responded to the allegation Monday that it had not met its requirement to file with the federal contracting System for Award Management, but the document was sealed by the federal court.

Leadership of new contractor

HTDA said in the complaint that the key personnel named to lead the work under the new Hanford contract was a factor given significant weight in the award, but that DOE’s evaluation of three high-level managers for H2C appeared to be faulty.

It said that key managers named in H2C’s proposal lack “recent and relevant experience,” but that H2C was rated as “outstanding” in the area of key personnel. Outstanding is the highest rating possible.

HTDA said it believed that H2C’s proposed program manager was Carol Johnson. Although her name was redacted in the court document it described Johnson’s work history as the project manager for the former Hanford river corridor cleanup contractor who retired from Hanford in 2013 and then was named president of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions in South Carolina.

She retired from there in 2016, it said.

She has participated on boards, but has not led any project or site since then, the complaint said.

“Given her six-year-long absence from the industry, (Johnson) lacks the experience and leadership needed to succeed in her proposed position,” H2C said in its complaint. “Furthermore, she is unlikely to remain on the job long, which poses another risk to contract performance.”

HTDA said a person it believed was another key manager, H2C’s proposed environment, safety, health and quality manager, worked for the Fluor Idaho Cleanup Project and Idaho National Laboratory Site from 2018 until her retirement in 2021.

The project had safety problems before and after she arrived, it said in court documents. It also said that she previously worked at the Savannah River Site, S.C., which had security concerns.

If DOE had reasonably reviewed her prior experiment, “it would have recognized this trend of safety incidents and security violations, which should have increased the risk of unsuccessful contract performance by H2C,” the court complaint said.

It also criticized H2C’s pick for business manager, saying he has no experience similar to the “span of control and dollar value” of the new Hanford contract.

He is the vice president of business services and chief financial officer of CH2M Hill BWX Technologies West Valley at a DOE project in New York, it said. That contracted work is valued at $95 million a year and employs 290 employees .

It is “not similar in size, scope or complexity” to the work in the new contract, the complaint said.

Contracting team’s past performance

DOE gave H2C a rating of “good,” the second highest rating possible, for its assessment of past performance.

“However, public records confirm numerous performance and safety issues have plagued the H2C team members” in recent years, plaintiff HTDA said.

“The severity of these events is reflective of the overall poor operating culture and safety management systems associated with the BWXT family of companies, which share corporate resources and assets and have significant overlap,” the complaint said.

They include the 2020 death of a worker in a flash fire in a supercompactor facility in the BWXT Nuclear Operations Group’s plant in Lynchburg, Va.

The supercompactor had crushed drums into small pucks for disposal, squeezing out 25 gallons of isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol was sparked by exposed wires, according to the complaint.

The plaintiff blamed the worker’s death on failure to adhere to safety controls.

The complaint also criticized the performance of Nuclear Waste Partnership, led by Amentum with BWXT as a partner, saying it had a history of safety failures at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

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DOE gave Nuclear Waste Partnership only 67% of the incentive fee available to it at the start of January 2022, the complaint said. Later that year a worker’s hand was crushed at the plant, the complaint said.

It also said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission criticized Nuclear Fuel Services, a subsidiary of BWXT, after an operator failed to follow standard procedures in August 2020, leading to a spill of nuclear material that exposed workers.

H2C’s past performance should have been graded “satisfactory,” if not worse, by DOE, the complaint said.

HTDA says contract unlawful

HTDA is asking the court to declare the contract award to H2C unlawful and to direct DOE to re-evaluate bids for the contract.

BWXT, the leader for the H2C team, declined to comment on the allegations while the issue is being litigated.

The new Hanford contract awarded in April covers operation of the Hanford vitrification plant as commissioning is completed and it starts to glassify some of the least radioactive waste in underground tanks for permanent disposal.

It also will manage the tank farms where 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste is stored until it can be treated for disposal. That includes continuing work to empty waste from 49 leak-prone storage tanks into 27 newer double-shell tanks.

The contract award was good for 10 years, with some work assigned to the winning bidder possibly continuing for another five years.

The waste is left from work at the Hanford site adjacent to Richland in Eastern Washington to produce nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.