The Department of Energy needs to maintain pursuit of a $15 million incentive paid to Bechtel National, contractor for Hanford nuclear reservation cleanup. It's money the DOE's auditors say should be returned.

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THE Hanford nuclear reservation is back in the news for the usual reasons: shoddy work, no progress and gratuitous insults to taxpayers.

An audit by the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General offers more grim insights about the heart of the reservation’s cleanup plan, the $12.2 billion vitrification plant. This was a plan to turn decades of nuclear bomb-making muck into something resembling glass logs.

For contractor Bechtel National, the construction job, which began in 2001, has turned into an epic cash cow with the completion horizon of a medieval cathedral, but with a vastly richer budget.

The vitrification plant’s estimated cost of $4.3 billion ballooned to $12.2 billion, with no end in sight. The infinitely flexible finish date was bumped to 2019, for now.

The inspector general’s audit found containment vessels to be defective, and there are fundamental questions about whether the whole system might ever work without blowing up — basic design and safety issues.

In the meantime, 53 million gallons of nuclear waste sit in tanks of varying degrees of decay and fragility.

In this environment comes word of Bechtel hanging onto a $15 million bonus, an incentive fee, actually, for finishing work — now determined to be defective — in a timely fashion.

Auditors leaned on DOE in the past to recover the payment, and Bechtel hung onto the money with nary a blush.

Sure, in the scheme of $12.2 billion, the $15 million is barely a spill on the bar. Keep after Bechtel to give it back. Sadly, the company can be confident there is more gravy to follow.