The highly radioactive dregs of WWII and cold war bomb-making continue to evolve explosive hydrogen gas, corrode and leak through tanks, while plans to clean them up continue to fail. 53 million gallons of high-level defense waste are held in 177 underground tanks, 149 of which are single-shelled and leak-prone. One million gallons of radioactive waste, leaked into groundwater, is seeping towards the Columbia river. The Bush-Cheney administration fast-tracked a risky, untested, plan to simultaneously design and build a waste processing and vitrification facility to dispose of the highly radioactive residue of plutonium production. Costs have already run 3 times over the original $4.3 billion budget and the promised completion date in 2011 has been put off indefinitely. The basic design of the waste processing system called the "pretreatment facility" may be critically flawed. The GAO has written multiple reports finding multiple faults with the safety, design, construction, and management of the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) project. Multiple whistleblowers have exposed severe safety, design and management problems with the project.
One of the project's managing engineers, Walter Tamosaitis, Ph.D., the Manager of Research and Technology found that design problems that could lead to hydrogen explosions within the "pretreatment facility" had not been met by Bechtel, the prime contractor, before it claimed a $6 million timely performance payment. He discussed his safety concerns with Bechtel managers, presenting them with a 50 item problem list on July, 1, 2010. On July 2, 2010 he was escorted from his office, demoted, then sent to an offsite basement office with no furniture and no work assignment. The Seattle Weekly obtained e-mail evidence that Frank Russo, who Bechtel named Director of WTP in January 2010, orchestrated the crack down on Tamosaitis.
In an e-mail dated March 31, 2010, Russo updated President Obama appointee Inés Triay on the situation. Triay, who did not return calls seeking comment, served as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management and oversaw the DOE’s Hanford work until July, at which time she stepped down.The waste processing facility, known as the "pretreatment facility", where the tank wastes are chemically processed and separated into high-level and low-level wastes, in preparation for vitrification and disposal, is the focus of safety concerns about WTP. In the mid-90s, a British design firm chose a "black box" closed cell design, used for nuclear reprocessing in the UK over open "trench" designs which had been used in U.S. reprocessing. The closed cell design was attractive because it had the potential of reducing radiation exposure to workers, but it is virtually impossible to repair if anything goes wrong. Scaling up the closed cell design to the volume, complexity and explosiveness of the waste at Hanford has, to date, been an intractable problem. Because the tank waste is not fully characterized, we don't know what's in some of the tanks, the design safety of the closed cells has been contentious.
“It was like herding cats,” Russo wrote Triay about a meeting he’d had with senior contract scientists and engineers regarding his quest to stay on schedule. “Scientists . . . were in lock step harmony when we told them the science is ending. They all hated it . . . I will send anyone on my team home if they demonstrate an unwillingness or inability to fulfill my direction.”
“Walt is killing us,” Russo later e-mailed Bill Gay of URS on July 1, 2010, who though removed from the chain of command still had to sign off on Tamosaitis’ removal.
“Get him in your corporate office today.”
“He will be gone tomorrow,” Gay replied.
Alexander knows his nuclear disasters well, as he led one of the DOE’s first scientific delegations to Russia’s Mayak nuclear facility in 1990. Mayak, one of the largest nuclear production plants in the former Soviet Union, suffered a deadly accident in 1957 when a tank containing nuclear materials exploded. The Mayak facilities are comparable to the plutonium production units built at Hanford, which is considered a “sister facility.” Since they are so close in design and makeup, Mayak is often seen as an example of what can go wrong with the production of plutonium and the storage of nuclear waste at Hanford. Alexander’s team negotiated the transfer of data collected by the Soviets on the health effects of Mayak’s radioactive release, establishing a program that allows Russian and U.S. scientists to share nuclear cleanup technologies and research.He has applied the lessons learned from that disaster to his oversight of WTP safety. In February, 2012 he filed a differing professional opinion concluding that the stainless steel pipes and radioactive waste processing cells were not durable enough to contain the highly abrasive and corrosive radioactive wastes for the 40 year planned plant lifetime. Some of the solids that settled to the bottom of the waste tanks are very hard, abrasive, insoluble oxides. These hard solids would abrade the relatively soft stainless steel used in the waste processing facility. He determined the pretreatment facility would likely fail because of abrasion many years into its 40 year lifetime when it would be highly radioactive and impossible to repair.
A treatment plant that the Energy Department is counting on to stabilize the radioactive waste at the nation’s largest environmental cleanup project, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, has design problems that could lead to chemical explosions, inadvertent nuclear reactions and mechanical breakdowns, a federal advisory panel warned on Tuesday.
The nuclear safety board warned about the risk of explosion to Wyden, who wanted comment on the safety and operation of Hanford's tanks, technical issues that have been raised about the design of a plant to treat the waste in those tanks, and Hanford's overall safety culture.The prime contractor, Bechtel, wrote that they have addressed the hydrogen gas problem in the double walled tanks by installing and running active ventilation. However, the board has expressed continued concern that there is no back up if the active ventilation system loses power or breaks down.
In addition to the leaks, the board noted concerns about the potential for hydrogen gas buildup within a tank, in particular those with a double wall, which contain deadly waste that was previously pumped out of the leaking single-shell tanks. "All the double-shell tanks contain waste that continuously generates some flammable gas," the board said. "This gas will eventually reach flammable conditions if adequate ventilation is not provided."
The board's concerns about the WTP are even more serious. The experts are concerned the plans won't work at all.
The board described the difficulties in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. Mr. Wyden said in an interview on Tuesday that the board’s experts had raised “a serious question as to whether this plant is going to work at all.”
In August 2012, a senior DOE manager wrote in an internal DOE memo that Bechtel should be removed as prime contractor for unsafe designs, multiple factual errors and violating federal standards.
In August, Gary Brunson, then the Energy Department's engineering division director, sent a memo to higher-level officials that alleged 34 instances in which Bechtel had committed factual errors, pursued unsafe designs or provided equipment that did not meet federal standards. Brunson said those failures had led to delays and increased costs and that the Energy Department should remove Bechtel as the design authority for the plant.However, Bechtel and it's subcontractors are continuing to suppress safety concerns according to a lawsuit filed this February by another manager turned whistleblower.
After the Brunson memo, an investigation by the Energy Department's office of nuclear safety found in November that Bechtel had committed potential health and safety violations, a finding that could lead to a multimillion-dollar fine.
Donna Busche, the manager of environmental and nuclear safety for San Francisco-based URS Corp., alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that executives at the $13.4-billion project attempted to suppress her warnings and were working to fire her. Busche, a nuclear engineer and health physicist, alleged that pressure to meet deadlines led the company to retaliate against her for insisting on stringent safety practices at the former nuclear weapons complex.Bechtel, the huge, politically powerful contractor has run roughshod over the tiny group DOE staff that are trying to manage the contract.
“One of the main problems at Hanford is that DOE is understaffed and overtasked,” Alexander explains. “As such, we cannot conduct in-depth reviews of each of the individual systems in the facilities. Therefore there is a high likelihood that several systems will be found to be inoperable or not perform to expectations.”Bechtel's management was enabled by DOE's political appointees to bully DOE's technical experts who were assigned to oversee the project. DOE's political appointees ceded project control to the contractor, Bechtel.
In an additional e-mail sent August 2, Alexander writes of how Bechtel management disregarded his early report that their design for the pulse jet mixers was flawed: “In the spring I raised a series of concerns with respect to the performance of the non-Newtonian vessels. Because I raised the issue, Frank Russo directed me to write my issues in a paper over the Easter weekend and deliver the paper on Monday April 5, 2010 . . . As a consequence the [Bechtel] manager labeled my issues as the ‘non- Newtonian curve-ball.’ Since when are DOE staff supposed to take direction from Contractor management? . . . Mr. Russo also directed Dr. Walter Tamosaitis to gather as many top flight PhDs as possible together to discredit my paper. I requested that my paper receive appropriate peer review but that request was denied. Walt had trouble even assembling a team. Walt knew that my issues were technically correct and he never submitted a counter paper.”The DOE's management structure, which places almost all of its technical expertise in the national laboratories, is incapable of competently and safely directing the WTP. Bechtel's management has gone directly to political appointees at DOE, eliminating all effective technical oversight. Bechtel should be fired for violating federal rules, regulations and standards, but that should be only the first step. The President and congress need to establish an effective management structure within DOE or a new separate organization to safely-control the management and disposal of defense and civilian nuclear wastes.
What GAO Found
1.Constructing the WTP is a massive, highly complex, and technically challenging project. For example, according to Bechtel documents, the completed project will contain almost 270,000 cubic yards of concrete and nearly a million linear feet of piping. The project also involves developing first-of-a-kind nuclear waste mixing technologies that will need to operate for decades with perfect reliability because, as currently designed, once WTP begins operating, it will not be possible to access parts of the plant to conduct maintenance and repair of these technologies due to high radiation levels.
The Department of Energy (DOE) faces significant technical challenges in successfully constructing and operating the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) project that is to treat millions of gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste resulting from the production of nuclear weapons. DOE and Bechtel National, Inc. identified hundreds of technical challenges that vary in significance and potential negative impact and have resolved many of them. Remaining challenges include (1) developing a viable technology to keep the waste mixed uniformly in WTP mix tanks to both avoid explosions and so that it can be properly prepared for further processing; (2) ensuring that the erosion and corrosion of components, such as tanks and piping systems, is effectively mitigated; (3) preventing the buildup of flammable hydrogen gas in tanks, vessels, and piping systems; and (4) understanding better the waste that will be processed at the WTP. Until these and other technical challenges are resolved, DOE will continue to be uncertain whether the WTP can be completed on schedule and whether it will operate safely and effectively.
Since its inception in 2000, DOE’s estimated cost to construct the WTP has tripled and the scheduled completion date has slipped by nearly a decade to 2019. GAO’s analysis shows that, as of May 2012, the project’s total estimated cost had increased to $13.4 billion, and significant additional cost increases and schedule delays are likely to occur because DOE has not fully resolved the technical challenges faced by the project. DOE has directed Bechtel to develop a new cost and schedule baseline for the project and to begin a study of alternatives that include potential changes to the WTP’s design and operational plans. These alternatives could add billions of dollars to the cost of treating the waste and prolong the overall waste treatment mission.
DOE is taking steps to improve its management and oversight of Bechtel’s activities but continues to face challenges to completing the WTP project within budget and on schedule. DOE’s Office of Health, Safety, and Security has conducted investigations of Bechtel’s activities that have resulted in penalties for design deficiencies and for multiple violations of DOE safety requirements. In January 2012, the office reported that some aspects of the WTP design may not comply with DOE safety standards. As a result, DOE ordered Bechtel to suspend work on several major WTP systems, including the pretreatment facility and parts of the high-level waste facility, until Bechtel can demonstrate that activities align with DOE nuclear safety requirements.
While DOE has taken actions to improve performance, the ongoing use of an accelerated approach to design and construction—an approach best suited for well-defined and less-complex projects—continues to result in cost and schedule problems, allowing construction and fabrication of components that may not work and may not meet nuclear safety standards. While guidelines used in the civilian nuclear industry call for designs to be at least 90 percent complete before construction of nuclear facilities, DOE estimates that WTP is more than 55 percent complete though the design is only 80 percent complete. In addition, DOE has experienced continuing problems overseeing its contractor’s activities. For example, DOE’s incentives and management controls are inadequate for ensuring effective project management, and GAO found instances where DOE prematurely rewarded the contractor for resolving technical issues and completing work.
Walter Tamosaitis, Ph.D., was the Manager of Research and Technology at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant(WTP) in Richland, Washington. Plaintiff alleges that he was transferred from his contract position at the Hanford WTP in retaliation for raising safety and technical concerns. He had been working at this position since 2003. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Bechtel National, Inc. (BNI) falsely claimed to meet its June 30, 2010, contract requirements to earn a $6 million fee. The next day, Plaintiff allegedly presented a 50-item list at a meeting with BNI and URS managers. Plaintiff alleges that this list detailed a number of safety and technical concerns with the project,which called into question Bechtel’s June 30th claim. On July 2, 2010, Plaintiff alleges that he returned to work for a scheduled 7:00 a.m. meeting. He alleges that he was informed that he was terminated from the WTP project immediately and was directed to turn in his badge, cell phone, and blackberry. Plaintiff allegedly was instructed to leave the site and was escorted out of the building without retrieving his personal effects from his office. Plaintiff was reassigned to a URS facility off the Hanford site. He is now working in an office in the basement and alleges that he has been given little or no meaningful work. Plaintiff is still employed by URS.