A new report to Congress raises concerns about a Hanford cornerstone project in the decadeslong efforts to clean up the radioactive and chemical wastes from plutonium production for nuclear weapons.
Repeated engineering errors, construction deficiencies and other problems have repeatedly cropped up in the yearslong effort to build Hanford’s waste-treatment plant — issues serious enough to warrant possible work stoppages for some parts of the project according to a congressional report released Tuesday.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report also found that federal Energy Department quality-assurance officials assigned to the waste-treatment project have sometimes had their findings altered by upper managers on the project who face “immense pressure” to meet cost and schedule targets.
The 31-page report is the latest critical look at the federal Energy Department’s oversight of the marathon project intended to treat chemical and radioactive wastes at the Hanford site in Central Washington where plutonium was produced for nuclear weapons.
The 65-acre facility is supposed to be able to transform some 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive wastes into glass rods that can be safely put into long-term storage. The process requires a hugely complex engineering effort due, in part, to the wide range of waste materials currently stored in 177 underground tanks, more than a third of which have leaked over the years.
The project is managed by the Energy Department’s Office of River Protection. It is a cornerstone of the efforts to clean up the perilous legacy of plutonium production at Hanford. It has faced decades of delay, and its cost has more than tripled to $16.8 billion.
The GAO report recommended an assessment of all the problems and that work be stopped when they reoccur.
In an April 11 response to a draft of the report, an Energy Department official said the project contractor — Bechtel National Inc. — has been asked to determine corrective actions. But the Office of River Protection staff determined that work stoppages are not warranted, according to Anne White, an Energy Department assistant secretary for environmental management.
White also will ask for a review of how to strengthen the independence of the quality-assurance division, according to her letter.
The GAO report, in part, is based on interviews with Office of River Protection quality-assurance officials. They describe a culture in which staff are “hesitant” to identify problems to senior managers who are more concerned with meeting “schedule milestones than identify and resolving quality-assurance issues,” according to the report.
One example cited in the report involved an assessment that found many items acquired between 2010 and July 2014 did not appear to meet nuclear-safety requirements. The quality-assurance division recommended this be cited as a Priority Level One finding, the most significant of three levels. But management opted to change to a less harsh Priority Two finding, according to the report.
The report also noted maintenance problems.
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Through the years, there has been deterioration and damage to some structures, systems and components of this unfinished plant, and this will require costly rework.
The construction project has been monitored by Washington state, which went to court to gain a consent decree that lays out construction milestones.
In a written statement, Alex Smith, the state Ecology Department’s nuclear-waste-program manager, said the issues identified in the GAO report had gone on for years.
“Our expectation is DOE and its contractor will protect human health and the environment by constructing and operating high quality, safe facilities that meet all applicable quality standards and regulatory requirements,” Smith said.
A Hanford watchdog said the report’s findings echo the warnings of whistleblowers who for years have flagged safety problems.
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, called for an independent assessment of the project by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“This is a quality-assurance program that is in deep trouble and this entire project is in deep trouble.”