Share story


Bechtel National, which is building a $12.2 billion waste-treatment plant at the federal government’s decommissioned nuclear-weapons site in Hanford, has been buying critically important parts without subjecting them to the required quality-assurance regimen, according to a new report by the Energy Department’s inspector general.

The department’s inspector general, Gregory Friedman, said that when Bechtel changed the design of equipment purchased from subcontractors, the company didn’t run the changes past its own environmental and nuclear-safety group. A review of 235 documents showed this failure happened one-third of the time in three years.

Friedman said the shortcoming could cause delays and cost increases for the Hanford cleanup plan, which already has suffered years of delay and billions of dollars of cost overruns. He also faulted the Energy Department for failing to do proper oversight of Bechtel’s progress.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“Bechtel determined that there was a systemic problem and a breakdown in controls over the review of design changes,” the inspector general’s report said, adding that the company has taken steps to correct the problem.

Washington state officials were still going over the report Thursday afternoon, but they said they were encouraged that the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel already had addressed many of the weaknesses identified in the audit. State officials had not yet seen anything suggesting there were long-term problems.

“We’re concerned anytime quality-assurance issues are raised,” said Dieter Bohrmann, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology. But “at this point it appears that these issues were taken care of quickly.”

Gov. Jay Inslee recognizes that building and operating such a one-of-a-kind waste-treatment plant is a complex undertaking, spokesman David Postman said. But the plant also remains the most viable solution for dealing with Hanford’s volatile mix of nuclear and chemical waste, he said.

The governor “has made clear that the owners, designers, constructors and operators are responsible for making sure the plant is built and runs safely” for the next 40 years, Postman said.

“That’s the expectation,” he said. “It’s their responsibility.”

Hanford was created by the Manhattan Project during World War II in the race to build an atomic bomb. The Hanford site, nearly half the size of Rhode Island and adjacent to the Columbia River, has 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste in underground tanks, a leftover of the nuclear-bomb production that lasted from World War II until 1987.

The Bechtel-designed waste-treatment plant, due to start operating in 2019, would turn the hazardous waste into glass. Doing so requires builders to fabricate unique pieces of equipment designed by Bechtel but in many instances manufactured by other companies.

The inspector general’s office said it launched an investigation after receiving a complaint that Bechtel was missing design-control documentation on the plant and could not demonstrate that some equipment was properly manufactured.

“We substantiated the allegation,” the inspector general said. “Our review revealed significant shortcomings” in the Energy Department’s managing of design and construction changes for waste-processing equipment.

Given the dangerous nature of the material, the federal government often requires significant safety reviews to make sure a minor-seeming change to one piece of equipment doesn’t create a major risk elsewhere in the plant.

But in one example highlighted by the inspector general, a lid for a nuclear waste “melter” did not meet design specifications. Bechtel was unable to provide evidence that the supplier had made necessary repairs to the lid or that Bechtel had re-examined the repair afterward to ensure that it met requirements, the report said. The purpose of the lid is to contain harmful byproducts — nitrogen oxide gases — produced during the melting process.

The long-running Hanford cleanup project has been plagued by controversy and setbacks. In February, the Energy Department reported that seven of 177 underground storage tanks were leaking. Six of those were in single-shell storage tanks that the state Department of Ecology said were “unfit for use and decades past their design life.” The seventh was a double-shell tank previously assumed to be secure, the state agency said.

In August 2009, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu paid a visit to the site, early in his tenure. The new energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, made a visit during his first month in office.

“In America’s time of need, the Hanford Site in Washington was critical to the production of plutonium,” Moniz said in a Sept. 24 blog post. “Today, we remain strongly committed to the American people and the communities around Hanford to clean up the effects of this activity.”

Moniz acknowledged there remained unresolved “technical issues,” but proposed that the department push ahead with a new phased approach. His new plan would turn one type of waste, called low-activity radioactive waste, into glass while contractors continued to sort through problems in building a facility to dispose of other, more volatile radioactive waste.

Earlier, the department had planned to send all the waste to a pretreatment facility; construction of that facility since has been suspended.

“It is critical that we move forward as expeditiously as possible to begin immobilizing the tank waste, and it is critically important to me that the Department continue to work closely with the state of Washington as we continue to advance this essential cleanup project,” he wrote.

Moniz noted that cleanup progress made so far at the 586-square-mile site included the demolition of 741 contaminated buildings, the moving of 2,300 tons of spent fuel from reactors to secure dry casks and the “cocooning” of six of nine nuclear reactors in steel and concrete.

Seattle Times staff contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.