Sep 2, 2015

Nuclear cleanup project haunted by legacy of design failures and whistleblower retaliation

The largest and most costly U.S. environmental cleanup project has been dogged for years by worries about an accidental nuclear reaction or a spill of toxic materials that could endanger residents nearby, as well as a history of contractor retaliation against workers who voice worries about persistent safety risks.

But it hasn't fully turned the corner yet, according to recent comments by the federal officials now overseeing its operation.

"Changing the culture takes time," said Mark Whitney, the Department of Energy's assistant secretary for environmental management, at a special hearing last week before members of an independent federal watchdog group that monitors safety problems at federal nuclear facilities. "I'm not going to sit here today and tell you we have everything solved."

Whitney spoke inside a ballroom at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, Washington, 17 miles from the Hanford Site where generators churned out plutonium, the lifeblood of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, for a half-century during the Cold War. More than 55 million gallons of pasty waste now lie in decomposing barrels beneath the ground at Hanford, posing a potential safety hazard to thousands of people who rely on the nearby Columbia River for drinking water.

The Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant project there, known as WTP, is meant to exhume the waste, freeze it in glass, and give it a proper burial. But it's been plagued by delays. It was expected to cost $4.3 billion and be built by 2011. Instead, the cost has swelled past $12 billion to date, with an estimated $7 billion in work left to be done. So far, not a drop of waste has been processed.

The Department of Energy has been constructing facilities to house the glassification work, including a plant that prepares the waste for storage by mixing it with materials to dilute its radioactivity. But the technology was flawed, creating a risk that explosive gases could pool in the pipes. According to a Government Accountability Office report released in May, contractors relied on obsolete safety guidelines, leaving the site vulnerable to accidents involving dangerous nuclear materials.

A 2014 draft report by the Energy Department's Office of River Protection on the status of the project was obtained by the nonprofit nuclear watchdog group Hanford Challenge and released by the group last week. It said engineers have identified more than 360 design weaknesses that could impede the operation of the Low-Activity Waste Facility, where the waste will be encased in glass. They also said the design led by contractor Bechtel National Incorporated fell short of acceptable safety standards. The ventilation system hadn't been adequately tested to assure it would stop widespread radioactive contamination in the building. Without a detailed plan for operation and maintenance, workers are at risk of exposure to searing heat and chemical and radiological hazards, the report said.

Asked about the report and about progress toward resolution of the longstanding problems facing the WTP project at last week's meeting of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Energy Department representatives said they had imposed stricter oversight of contractors, and made a concentrated effort to assure workers they can report problems without retribution.

But safety board member Sean Sullivan, a retired Navy officer who spent 26 years commanding submarines, questioned what the department claims are signs of improvement. He pointed to a January 2013 Energy Department review at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a federal nuclear waste repository in New Mexico known as WIPP, which missed some key safety problems.

When a truck fire and a radiation leak inside WIPP halted operations there a year later, independent experts identified even more gaping holes in the plant's safety precautions than the department's previous examinations had found, Sullivan said. "The safety culture at WIPP was not fine," Sullivan said. "In fact, it was not good at all."

In June, Bechtel, the contractor the Energy Department hired for the WTP project, agreed to pay a fine of $800,000 after investigators concluded Bechtel had failed to follow safety guidelines it agreed to more than a decade earlier, or to update them when problems were found, "in some cases, for many years," according to the company's settlement agreement with the Office of Enterprise Assessments.

The Government Accountability Office in May said that the Energy Department's cost estimates for the project can't be trusted, and also asserted that "significant, unresolved design issues remain" with Bechtel's nuclear safety standards compliance. Correcting the problems could add to the expense of the project and delay its completion, the GAO concluded.

In 2012, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu concluded that the project was progressing but still had significant flaws. A report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board concluded that problems flagged by a whistleblowerin the planning and design of the waste mixing center persisted, raising the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. Chu halted work on the project in late 2012 and ordered a large-scale testing operation meant to detect when nuclear materials become so concentrated that that they threaten to trigger an accidental reaction.