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Audit Takes Aim at DOE, Hanford Contractors

Monday, April 30, 2018

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A new report from the federal Government Accountability Office indicates that problems at the site of the construction of a waste treatment plant at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington state continue, and the Department of Energy and design-build contractor Bechtel National Inc. share the responsibility for ongoing quality-assurance issues.

The Hanford site, a decommissioned nuclear site where the first nuclear bomb ever tested was built, has been undergoing cleanup for nearly 30 years, and the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) has been in the works since 2000, when Bechtel was awarded the design-build contract for what the government calls a “complex, first-of-its-kind project.”

Hanford Site
Tobin Fricke, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The GAO investigation found that quality-assurance issues found at the Hanford Site project in the past were not all corrected.

The WTP will eventually treat nuclear waste that is currently being stored in 177 storage tanks on the site. Radioactive waste will undergo a process called vitrification, in which it is converted to a more stable glass substance, locking in the dangerous waste so it can’t leak out.

The WTP project has been plagued by repeated timeline delays and cost increases, including a 2012 work stoppage based on findings by the DOE’s Office of River Protection. The ORP said at the time that it could not verify that work had been completed to nuclear standards, and recommended a complete stoppage; Bechtel stopped only some operations at that time.

The project is now projected to cost $17 billion, more than triple its original cost estimate.

The GAO Report

The GAO, an official watchdog agency that audits government operations to monitor waste and ethics, released a report April 24 detailing its investigation of operations on the WTP project, brought on in response to the delays and cost overruns.

The GAO says in the report that the ORP has not ensured that all problems with the project have been identified, nor that the known problems have been addressed. “DOE audits have found that previously identified quality assurance problems have recurred in key areas,” the report notes, including the procurement of materials that don’t meet standards.

Hanford WTP
Department of Energy

The investigation looked at operations involved in the construction of the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, which will eventually be the site of vitrification processes at the facility.

In 2016, Bechtel and AECOM Technology Corp. (which bought Hanford contractor URS Corp. in 2014) settled with the Department of Justice to the tune of $125 million over charges that Bechtel and URS did subpar work over more than a decade at the Hanford site (not limited to the WTP), charging the DOE for higher-quality materials than they actually used.

Storage Tank Leaks, Deterioration

While the WTP continues construction, the storage tanks housing the facility’s waste continue to raise concerns about leaks and deterioration. According to Washington’s Department of Ecology, at least 67 of the tanks at the site have leaked more than 1 million gallons of waste over the years.

The tank farm consists of 139 single-shell tanks and 28 double-shell tanks, with reinforced concrete secondary containment. Ecology has pushed the DOE to construct more double-shell tanks since leaks were first discovered more than five years ago.

Tank AY-102, the first double-shell tank to have been built at the site (in the early 1970s), was taken out of service early this year after an inspection of the inner steel tank found seven areas where toxic sludge was leaking into the secondary containment.

The tanks hold waste that includes uranium 235, plutonium 238 and strontium 90.

Last year, a tunnel housing railcars full of waste collapsed at the site, raising concerns about possible releases of radiation. The incident reportedly did not result in any release of contamination, but the state of Washington took steps to penalize the DOE over the collapse.

About the Site

Constructed in 1943 and 1944 and instrumental in the development of the United States' nuclear program, the Hanford Site has been shut down since 1987, and cleanup efforts began in 1989. The 586-square-mile site on the Columbia River is nearly half the area of Rhode Island.


Tagged categories: Contractors; Nuclear Power Plants; Quality assurance; U.S. Department of Energy

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