Will Hanford's Big Clean-Up Ever Begin?

Fifteen years past its originally scheduled start-up date, the nuclear facility's glassification plant is way over budget and no one seems able to nail down a deadline. At fault, say critics, are mismanagement, frequent turnover in the top brass, and a culture that doesn't take kindly to criticism.   

In the summer of 2010, Walt Tamosaitis was facing a deadline crunch.

The pressure was high at the federal Hanford nuclear reservation where Tamosaitis worked for URS Corp, a subcontractor for Bechtel, the project-management company that the federal government had contracted to help clean up what is arguably the most chemically and radiologically contaminated chunk of land in the Western Hemisphere.

His team was charged with designing a “pretreatment plant,” part of a glassification facility that would dispose of the waste created at Hanford from 1943 to 1989, when the federal government irradiated uranium rods inside nine reactors there to create the plutonium used in the country’s nuclear arsenal. The plant is where the sludges and liquid waste that resulted from the manufacture of that plutonium would be prepared for transport to two next-door facilities where they would be converted into immense, and entirely benign, glass logs that would trap the radiation for at least 10,000 years.

The plant’s design, though, had problems. There was a risk of hydrogen gas explosions that would bend and burst pipes inside the plant, resulting in a spray of radioactive fluids. That would be bad. And so would radioactive sludges clogging the plant’s innards, and uncontrollable bursts of radiation in those innards. And even if all those hazards were avoided, corrosion likely would cause leaks in the plant’s 38 mixing tanks, plus all the pipes.

As he and his team attempted to solve these problems by a June 30, 2010, deadline, 56 million gallons of highly radioactive liquids, sludges, and crusts sat inside 149 huge single-shell and 28 newer, supposedly safer, double-shell tanks. At that point at least 67 single-shell tanks had leaked at least one million gallons of radioactive liquids into the ground, where they had been slowly seeping toward the nearby Columbia River. (Later, in 2013, one double-shell tank would spring a leak in its inner shell; and in 2014, the Government Accountability Office would report that another 12 double-shell tanks could spring leaks in the near future.) While the Columbia River’s volume had been able to dilute the radionuclides that had already reached the river, a big question mark loomed over whether more massive volumes of more potent radioactive fluids might also hit it.

The clock was ticking. And yet, as Tamosaitis would soon realize, the deadline that he faced was less about the existential threat posed by radioactive contamination within the plant than about dollars in his employer’s bank account. Five million, to be exact.

If the design problems were fixed by June 30, 2010, the feds would pay that amount as a bonus to Bechtel National Inc. and its chief subcontractor, URS Corp. But there was a problem: Tamosaitis, the head of the chemical-engineering team in charge of fixing those design problems, said the design fix-it measures could not be ready by the deadline.

He argued for several months leading up to the deadline that too many of the flaws in the designs had not been addressed. His bosses downplayed those concerns. According to a 2011 lawsuit filed in federal court by Tamosaitis, the URS assistant manager for the Hanford glassification project, William Gay, said several times in early 2010 that not meeting the June deadline could hurt careers and compensations. “On one or more occasions,” Tamosaitis’ lawsuit claimed, “Gay stated, ‘If this doesn’t close, I’ll be selling Amway in Tijuana.’ ”

On July 1, 2010, Bechtel and URS declared that the design problems were fixed. The Department of Energy agreed. The next day, Tamosaitis was told to turn in his security badge, cell phone, and Blackberry—and leave the Hanford site.

Meanwhile, DOE paid the $5 million to Bechtel and URS.

URS reassigned Tamosaitis. According to the 2011 lawsuit, which argued that the engineer was due an unspecified dollar amount because of the retaliation, URS officials told Tamosaitis in mid-July that Bechtel and DOE wanted him removed. He was moved to a minor procurement job buying material and equipment in a basement in a Richland building about 15 miles from the glassificiation plant site in central Hanford. There he shared a room with two copying machines and was given “little or no meaningful work,” the lawsuit alleged.

But as Tamosaitis toiled away in that basement, a funny thing happened. His concerns about the plant began to spread. In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board came to a similar conclusion about flaws in the pretreatment plant’s design. A year later, the General Accounting Office—the investigative arm of Congress—issued a report that echoed his worries.

Then, in August of this year, at the same time that URS was settling with a by-then-retired Tamosaitis for $4.1 million, the Department of Energy announced that the glassification plant would not meet its on-line target of 2022.

The irony is that DOE?s reasons to delay the glassification project are so familiar—unsolved design problems concerning flammable hydrogen gases, radiation bursts, corrosion, and clogging that can wreck the pretreatment plant’s interior. They are the same ones cited by Tamosaitis in 2010, the ones that got him exiled for apparently endangering the contractor’s $5 million bonus for supposedly solving those same problems.

“I would hope with the visibility of my case that someone would hold their feet to the fire and make them belly up to the bar and take care of” the design flaws in a timely manner, Tamosaitis said in August.

If the past is prologue, that is highly unlikely.

The story of Tamosaitis’ unheralded warnings is not the exception in the ongoing struggle to contain Hanford’s waste. Rather, this episode is just the latest in a litany of setbacks that has put the project over budget and off schedule again and again.

Officially, the reasons are that this is a first-of-its-kind project with difficult-to-perfect new technology.

In reality, the glassification project—like most of Hanford—resembles a giant Dilbert comic book.

The culture is the culprit. There are immense corporate and social pressures to look good now and hope someone else is in charge when things go wrong later. These pressures include high turnover in upper management, bonuses to corporations, individual career advancement, and retaliation against those who rock the boat at inconvenient times.

This culture dates back to 1989 when Hanford was ceasing its plutonium development operations. At that time the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington Department of Ecology made a pact, dubbed the Tri-Party Agreement, that was to set the path for all Hanford’s cleanup obligations.

The master plan at the center of that pact involves a complex that includes “a pretreatment plant” that would convert the tank wastes so it can be sent to one of two melters—one for highly radioactive wastes, one for less-radioactive wastes. By 2047, according to the pact, all 56 million gallons of nuclear wastes would be converted into glass. The complex came with a $4 billion estimate to build and to be operating by 1999. Then the startup dates drifted back: first to 2007, then 2011, then 2019.

Now the state and DOE are litigating and negotiating a revised schedule based on a 2008 state lawsuit on missed legal deadlines and a 2010 “consent decree,” a negotiated agreement on that lawsuit that set the 2019 and 2022 deadlines. This timetable issue is still in federal court. However, the state and DOE have both acknowledged the 2019 and 2022 deadlines are not feasible.

“Since the 2010 settlement was finalized, Washington has not seen evidence that Energy has taken the necessary steps to do everything within its power to meet the legal obligations contained in the consent decree and [the 1989 legal pact],” said a March 2014 letter from the Washington Attorney General’s Office to the U.S Department of Justice, which is representing DOE. “We have not seen evidence of Energy exercising reasonable diligence to identify and respond to technical issues, performing effective project management, exercising strong oversight of its contractors, or seeking sufficient funds or reprogramming funds to meet its obligations.”

The state has proposed a new deadline to have the glassification plant fully functional by 2028.

The DOE has not signed on to the 2028 date, but is proposing a limited startup in 2022 involving an extra second pretreatment plant that can handle limited amounts for a quickly built low-level-radioactive-waste glassification facility. The DOE also wants to remove deadlines for finishing the main pretreatment plant and for the high-level-radioactive-waste glassification facility. DOE’s reasons are that it cannot say when certain technical issues—the ones cited by Tamosaitis in 2010—will be resolved. When those are resolved, DOE will then be willing to set most of the new deadlines.

In a written statement, DOE said the “staggered approach” would lead to the relatively quicker glassification of the low-level wastes, getting the project actually working early in the next decade, while the technical issues can be resolved simultaneously.

“As design and construction progress, so does our understanding of the very complex issues we are addressing,” Bechtel said in a written statement prepared in response to questions that Seattle Weekly sent to Bechtel and DOE.

So far the budget for the glassification plant has officially grown to $12.3 billion, with the caveat that this price tag won’t glassify all 56 million gallons of wastes. In fact, the plant as currently designed will glassify all the high-level wastes, but only a third of the low-level wastes, by 2047, said the state, DOE, and Bechtel. Extra low-level-waste glassification equipment might be needed in order to make the final 2047 deadline, or that deadline might have to be extended, state officials have speculated.

The federal government has spent $19 billion since 1989 to both take care of Hanford’s tank wastes and to build a glassification complex—with no wastes converted yet into a safe form, said a 2015 General Accounting Office report.

That number is likely to grow. A December 2012 General Accounting Office report concluded that DOE and its contractors still don’t have a grip on the costs. That 2012 GAO report put the price tag at $13.4 billion—more than $1 billion higher than DOE’s current estimate—“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.”

The GAO report said DOE has told Bechtel to put together a new budget and timetable for the glassification project, including possible changes to the complex’s designs. “These alternatives could add billions of dollars to the cost of treating the waste and prolong the overall waste-treatment mission,” the GAO report said.

In a written statement, Bechtel said it has done that updating work for the low-level-waste glassification plant and many auxiliary facilities. But despite DOE’s December 2012 reply to the GAO, Bechtel said DOE has not yet asked for a new budget and timetable for the high-level-waste glassification facility and for the pretreatment plant.

Meanwhile, critics argue that major mistakes are not met with enough financial punishment to get the project back on track. DOE has not penalized Bechtel for cost increases and delays that have appeared after the original deadlines were supposedly met, even though that has been a pattern at the glassification project, the GAO report said.

“Do I think this is the pinnacle of project management? No,” said Jane Hedges, manager of the Washington Department of Ecology’s nuclear-waste program.

No doubt many problems arise from the fact that the Hanford project is one of the world’s most complicated nuclear-waste projects in terms of volumes and complexities of the wastes. Yet observers point to other factors causing delays and overruns: project management problems, frequent turnover in the top brass, and a culture that wants to ignore major troubles.

In both Richland and Washington, D.C., top DOE officials spend radically less of their careers on planning and leading Hanford’s cleanup than the middle managers and rank-and-file employees doing the actual work. At the top levels, the routine is to spend two to four years on the job and then move on to something else—adding a few lines to a resume before seeking a new post.

Pressured by then-U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Pasco), the Department of Energy in 1999 set up a specific agency—the Office of River Protection in Richland—to deal solely with the tank wastes and building the glassification complex. Since 1999, that DOE agency has had nine permanent and interim chief managers—by rough average, a new federal boss in Richland for the glassification project every 18 months.

In a written statement, the Office of River Protection said it has maintained a good management team at Hanford despite the changes. “The current [DOE] manager [Kevin Smith], who has been at Hanford since late 2012, is a highly experienced leader, with the right skills to lead tank farm operations and [glassification-plant] construction,” the statement said.

Critics argue that the waste-glassification plant is being designed and built in a culture that rewards an alternating combination of speed and delays.

That scenario unfolds like this: Contractors sacrifice quality and safety to make deadlines in order to get full bonus payments from DOE, dubbed “award fees.” Then the improperly completed work leads to delays, which lead to renegotiating deadlines and fees that send more money to the contractors’ coffers as time drags on. Meanwhile, the rapid turnover in high-ranking DOE and contractor officials means the top leaders will have moved to better jobs elsewhere by the time their earlier decisions actually backfire.

“Bechtel knows how to slow-walk a schedule to make the most money,” Tamosaitis told Seattle Weekly. “If something fouls up, you’ve got to pay them more to fix it.”

Bechtel disputed that contention in writing: “This is false. In fact, safety is the overriding element in everything we do. And we are good stewards of taxpayer dollars as we build a one-of-a-kind facility. . . . When it comes to safety, we have created an environment where our employees can work safely today and where they can design a plant that will operate safely and efficiently.”

However, others agree with Tamosaitis.

“There is no penalty for a contractor being wrong,” said Donna Busche, a former URS safety official, in a 2012 interview with Crosscut. She could not be reached for comment for this story.

“DOE has experienced continuing problems overseeing its contractor’s activities,” a 2013 GAO report said. “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.”

Besides Bechtel and URS getting a $5 million bonus in 2010 for supposedly fixing engineering design problems that still exist today, the contractors also received a $30 million federal bonus for installation work inside the glassification pretreatment building in 2004.

However, Bechtel couldn’t prove the welding was done properly on the pipes and tanks within that building—a facility whose interior will eventually become so radioactive that humans will not be able to enter it even with protective clothes, according to a 2012 DOE Inspector General report. Such an area is known as a “black cell.”

“The importance of black cells and hard-to-reach components cannot be overstated,” the IG report said. “Premature failure of these components could potentially impact safety, contaminate large portions of a multibillion-dollar facility, and interrupt waste processing for an unknown period of time.”

The lack of welding records did not become apparent until 2010, the DOE Inspector General’s report said. DOE asked Bechtel to return $15 million of that $30 million bonus. The 2012 DOE Inspector General report said there was no record of that $15 million being repaid, and it criticized DOE for not aggressively trying to get the money back.

In its written response to the Inspector General, DOE confirmed that the $15 million hadn’t been repaid. The reason the agency gave was an updated contract in 2009 declaring that all fee disputes up to that time were resolved.

Meanwhile, Bechtel is also slow in identifying problems and keeping tight financial grips on subcontractors and equipment vendors, said a DOE Inspector General report dated Nov. 17, 2015. The report looked at 1,365 cases in which Bechtel determined that products from vendors did not meet specificiations, and found that 44 percent of those cases took two years or more after delivery to identify. One case involved a tank delivered in 2004 to use in the glassification plant’s black cells. It took seven years before Bechtel found out it did not meet the 2004 specifications, the report said. Also, Bechtel did not find out for nine years until 2013 that another major piece of black-cell equipment delivered in 2004 did not meet the original specifications.

The report also criticized Bechtel for not aggressively seeking financial penalties and fighting cost overruns pertaining to that defective equipment. In its response to the November IG report, Bechtel agreed with the findings and said it would work on fixing the quality-control problems.

Another cultural problem haunts the glassification project. Tamosaitis pointed to the common practice of DOE officials frequently moving to higher-paying jobs with the contractors. “It’s a back-scratching system,” he said. DOE denied that this “back-scratching” scenario occurs.

Critics contend

all these

pressures have created a culture that encourages turning a blind eye to bad news. For almost 30 years, Hanford officials have had a checkered history of retaliating against managers and employees who bring up inconvenient concerns.

In 1988, Mike Lawrence, DOE’s manager for Hanford’s nuclear cleanup operations, wrote to a whistleblower: “I do not condone any form of harassment or retaliation by either the contractor or the DOE representatives.”

However, not all managers have been so open to criticism. At the beginning of this decade, a new surge of frustrated middle managers emerged at the glassification project. There was Tamosaitis in 2010; another was Busche, then the manager for environmental and nuclear safety at URS. Her job was to anticipate and prevent nuclear safety problems at the glassification project. She filed a Labor Department complaint in late 2011 against Bechtel and URS, alleging the two companies were trying to remove her from her post in retaliation for pushing inconvenient safety concerns.

Like Tamosaitis, Busche contended that pressure to meet design and construction deadlines had outweighed concern for equipment safety on the project. “Beginning in 2010, [URS’ and Bechtel’s] focus moved away from nuclear and environmental safety compliance and toward meeting deadlines regardless of the quality of the work,” Busche’s 2011 complaint stated. “In this atmosphere, Ms. Busche was viewed as a roadblock to meeting deadlines, rather than a valuable check against noncompliance, and managers sought ways to retaliate and to circumvent her efficacy.”

On Oct. 7 and 8, 2010, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board—the Washington, D.C. federal advisory body that double-checks DOE’s cleanup plans—held a packed public meeting in Kennewick to quiz state, DOE, and contractor officials about the the glassification project. The DOE officials included Ines Triay, DOE’s nationwide cleanup czar until July 2011.

Busche helped write some of the responses for the DOE, Bechtel, and URS officials who testified. But when two of her superiors changed some of her information, she refused to sign the formal response document, forcing them to revert to her original wording.

Also at that hearing, Busche gave the defense board a different technical answer than DOE officials did on the physics of aerosol particles dispersing and falling to the ground, which affects how escaped radioactive particles fly through the air. That angered Triay enough that afterward she chewed out Busche in a room filled with 50 URS employees, declaring that if Busche’s “intent was to piss people off [with her testimony, she] did a very good job,” according to Busche’s Labor Department complaint.

On Oct. 8, 2010, according to Busche’s complaint, three high-ranking contractor officials—Frank Russo, Bechtel’s glassification project manager; Leo Sain, a senior URS vice president; and William Gay, the URS assistant project manager—approached Busche one by one to ask if she would be willing to change her answer on the aerosol-dispersion matter. “She understood their questions to imply she should recant her earlier testimony,” Busche’s complaint said. She refused.

Later, in January 2011, another of Busche’s supervisors, Mike Coyle, told her “to stop putting technical and safety issues in writing to him, and to instead come to him in person with these issues, so as to avoid making a written record,” her 2011 complaint read. In a 2012 interview, Busche said she believed this was to eliminate paper trails for future potential problems.

Busche was deposed in May 2011 during the Tamosaitis case, and identified many of his technical concerns as valid. Then in October 2011, Busche’s superiors gave her a “corrective action letter” for having one of her people run an errand for her while that employee was on a lunch break. She believes the letter was the start of a paperwork trail to terminate her. According to her complaint, another supervisor told Busche that “people want her fired.”

“URS and [Bechtel] are currently engaged in retaliatory efforts in order to remove Ms. Busche from her assignment at URS,” her 2011 complaint alleged.

Busche’s case is still in litigation.

“This is the message sent to every ethical competent engineer. Everything goes forward because of the political pressures,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a longtime Hanford watchdog organization that has handled whistleblower issues there since the 1980s. “It’s still a system that rejects any criticism, any dissent.”

Another issue plaguing the project is the fact that Bechtel is both the “design agency” and the “design authority” for the glassification project.

In English, that means Bechtel is in charge of designing the glassification complex and of approving those designs. Tamosaitis believes that this is a massive flaw in managing Hanford’s glassification project, in that there are no checks and balances to ensure its designs are the best for the nation’s taxpayers rather than for the corporation.

A 2012 memorandum sent by Dale Brunson, DOE’s Hanford glassification engineering division director, to Scott Samuelson, the eighth of the DOE Office of River Protection’s nine head managers since 1999, echoes that concern. In that memo, Brunson complained that Bechtel’s designs and solutions were sometimes factually incorrect, had technical flaws, didn’t address safety problems, cost more in the long run than other options, and had solutions that were difficult to verify. Some designs did not lead to safe equipment that functions as intended in the field, the memo said.

“Repair and rework of these non-compliant designs are leading to significant costs and schedule impacts . . . They illustrate the general behavior and performance of the [Bechtel] engineering organization acting as the [glassification complex’s] design authority and design agent,” Brunson wrote.

Occasional criticism has popped up that so much time and money have been sunk into the glassification project that changing to a more efficient course is difficult. For example, see the DOE’s proposal to speed up work by building a second pretreatment plant to resolve its consent-decree dispute with the state. Under Hanford’s current master plan, one pretreatment plant—the one involved in the Tamosaitis litigation—would separate tank wastes into highly radioactive and less-radioactive materials in preparation to send them to one of two neighboring melting facilities, each designed to convert specifically the high-level or the low-level materials into the glass cylinders. DOE is proposing to build a second pretreatment plant that would prepare wastes already classified as containing solely low levels of radioactivity.

The idea is to build the low-level pretreatment plant and the low-level glassifying facility quickly—and begin converting some wastes into glass while Hanford wrestles with designing and building the more complicated main pretreatment plant and the high-level glassifying facility.

But a May 2015 GAO report notes that the DOE estimates the low-level-waste pretreatment facility and its auxiliary equipment would likely take six to eight years to build, and cost an extra $1 billion. And an eight-year period would mean that glassification would ramp up in 2023—one year behind the current deadline. However, that GAO report also contends that some extra needed construction has been left out of that $1 billion estimate. Also, unresolved design issues based on out-of-date approaches make that timetable and cost estimate unreliable, the 2015 GAO report argues.

Meanwhile, another twist recently surfaced that could affect the speed of constructing Hanford’s glassification complex. Since 1995, DOE has had a permanent group of academics to advise it on nuclear cleanup matters. As requested by Congress’ fiscal 2014–15 budget legislation, the group did a study and then released a report in August that included a recommendation that DOE approach Congress for legislation to make its nuclear-cleanup decisions across the nation exempt from state government lawsuits and consent decrees. This would affect the consent-decree dispute that Washington and DOE are having over Hanford’s tank wastes.

The advisory group’s rationale is that DOE does not have enough money to meet all its nationwide nuclear-cleanup obligations on time, and that the various cleanup agreements the DOE signed many years ago with several states are based on outdated information. Those obligations include major Cold War nuclear sites such as Idaho Falls; Savannah River, S.C.; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and others. The group recommended that DOE set up a committee of experts to map out DOE’s nationwide cleanup priorities independently of its legal agreements.

That prompted an August 27 letter from Govs. Jay Inslee and Oregon’s Kate Brown to the U.S. House and Senate subcommittees that handle nuclear-cleanup allocations. That letter argued that the advisory group’s recommendation would eliminate all of Washington’s, Oregon’s, and other states’ legal abilities to enforce DOE’s lapsed cleanup obligations in court.

In its last several annual nationwide budget requests to Congress, the Obama administration has usually requested less than what is needed to meet the federal government’s legal obligation to states with nuclear-cleanup projects—mostly because of numerous federal agencies fighting over a limited amount of money, according to the staff of Sen. Patty Murray. Then Murray, Sen. Maria Cantwell, and Congressional members from other states with nuclear-cleanup sites have fought to increase that budget to try to meet all of DOE’s cleanup obligations, observers said.

An extra wrinkle is the fiscal 2012–13 sequestration legislation, in which Congress made across-the-board cuts, including money headed to Hanford’s tank-waste projects. That put the tank-waste projects into deeper financial holes from which they are still trying to recover, said state and federal officials.

While Hanford Challenge’s Carpenter agrees Hanford’s tank-waste projects have been underfunded, he also contended that is not their top problem: “It’s not a matter of the money, but how the money is being spent.”

news@seattleweekly.com

 
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