(Seattle, WA) – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is releasing documents provided to it by whistleblowers and through public sources illustrating a systemic breakdown in key safety inspection systems designed to ensure the safe construction and operation of a Hanford nuclear waste plant that mixes waste with glass at high temperatures. The documents were received by GAP from internal sources at Bechtel National, Inc., the contractor hired by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to construct the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) or “vitrification” plant, or obtained through public records act requests.
Among the documents being released by GAP is a January 2005 Department of Energy internal audit that found Bechtel had established a hostile working environment that chilled the reporting of safety concerns at the WTP. The report stated that over half of those questioned by the DOE in the 2005 survey stated that they were afraid of job actions against them for even participating in the survey.
Other documents detail how one vessel crucial to containing high-level nuclear waste and radiation during the vitrification process was flawed before installation and that DOE and Bechtel both knew this, as both parties knew the design specifications were incorrect when the vessel was built and installed. Up to 66 other vessels crucial for environmental safety and public health were built using the wrong specifications, and had to be corrected before installation. Another document shows a Bechtel employee stated that it was simply “dumb luck” that this vessel’s defects were discovered.
“Safety and responsible design took a back seat to production schedules, and workers were intimidated into not speaking up about important safety issues at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant,” said GAP Nuclear Oversight Director Tom Carpenter. “As a result, the foundation of this facility is suspect from a safety standpoint. I doubt that the facility can be safely operated without a major reinvestigation of its integrity.”
The installation of the above-mentioned defective vessel was the result of Bechtel’s rush to receive a $15 million bonus for meeting a deadline, coupled with an effective lack of oversight by the DOE. This was only to be followed months later by another DOE payment to Bechtel of $11 million for Bechtel’s use in taking steps to combat its own negligence and incompetence.
“Independent oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is sorely needed at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant process so that the public can have some assurance of adult supervision at this crucial nuclear project,” said Carpenter. “The lack of effective oversight, combined with the fast-track mentality, has already resulted in an additional $5 billion in taxpayer funds, countless major safety violations, and unacceptable delays in the projected opening date of the facility.”
The WTP is one of the world’s largest and most expensive environmental remediation plants in the world. Engineering errors, cost overruns and schedule delays have forced a suspension in the plant’s construction since September 2005, and Congressional committees have expressed doubts about future funding. GAP alleges that internal record documents show a significant and wide-ranging breakdown in the key Quality Assurance inspection programs that are supposed to ensure that the facility adheres to safety requirements. The documents also indicate a willingness and intention on the part of some managers to underreport, or even fail to report, important safety issues to the government.
Bechtel has come under high scrutiny in the past regarding the WTP for speeding up construction at the expense of safety. The entire plant was “fast-tracked,” meaning that construction of the plant began before plans and blueprints were fully complete. This was another key reason why the plant’s construction was halted last year, as a lack of safeguarding for future seismic events was discovered. For more on the history of the vitrification plant, see GAP’s Hanford page.
The Scrubber Vessel
The systemic breakdown in Hanford’s safety oversight is more than just a paperwork violation. Actual construction defects have resulted which raise questions about the integrity of the facility as a whole. One example is a large high-level nuclear waste vessel called a “submerged bed scrubber” (Scrubber vessel) that was installed at Hanford in late 2003.
The Scrubber vessel, a crucial piece of the vitrification process, is an 8,000 gallon tank which collects extremely toxic high level waste vapors during vitrification, holds them until they precipitate back into the tank, and then releases them back into the original process. Since this tank is located in what is known as a “Black Cell” area, once this process is initiated, no human being can enter into the area again due to the lethal amounts of radiation emitted during the process. Therefore, it is essential that the Scrubber vessel be free of defects pre-installation, because of the difficulty in inspecting and correcting problems post-installation due to the inability of inspectors to gain access to the tank. Bad welds, valves or other construction defects can lead to nuclear leaks. A leaking of this high-level nuclear waste could be disastrous for the surrounding environment, workers or nearby residents.
In 2005, British nuclear plant managers at the Sellafield plant discovered a Black Cell tank leak which released an estimated 20,000 gallons of highly radioactive waste inside the cell due to a pipe break. The cleanup price tag will be in the billions of dollars.
Along with this release, please find an attached timeline detailing the history the Scrubber vessel, and how it was installed with known defects which were later discovered by an independent inspector for the State of Washington. The list of problems includes:
- Bechtel sent the incorrect design specifications for the Scrubber vessel to a vendor, was alerted of its mistake by DOE, and yet failed to correct the problem. These design standards would have required a “full volumetric scan” on the Scrubber vessel, and a more rigorous design for seismic events. In fact, no volumetric scan was conducted by the time the tank was installed.
- The DOE allowed Bechtel to “shortcut bureaucratic processes in order to meet deadlines.”
- A total of seventeen Non-Compliance Reports were written about the Scrubber vessel in a 9 month period after installation.
- The DOE awarded Bechtel $15 million for the Scrubber vessel installation despite both parties knowing the vessel was built to the wrong specifications and was defective.
- The DOE provided Bechtel with an extra $11 million even after it was realized that Bechtel had used the wrong design standards, had failed to assure adequate inspections at the vendor or within its own departments, and installed the tank knowing that the Scrubber vessel was defective.
- Scrubber welds and nozzles were discovered that were calculated to erode within five years (leaking hazardous material) due to design errors.
- The Scrubber vessel issues were only caught, in the words of one employee, by “dumb luck”
- 66 other vessels had similar design specification errors due to Bechtel’s failure.
“This tank is symptomatic of a larger sickness in Hanford’s quality programs,” stated Carpenter. “While Eastern Washington may have been lucky that the tank’s problems were eventually identified and fixed before the tank was used in a black cell, the same programs designed to catch these kinds of problems at an early stage clearly failed. It raises a disturbing question – how many other pieces of defective equipment or machinery are installed, ready for use, at Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant? If this were a commercial power plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would impose civil penalties and enforcement actions against the contractor, including forcing the company to rip out the concrete and piping already installed because the quality is ‘indeterminate.’”
Independent Oversight & Safety Concerns
Oversight of the vitrification plant is locally controlled by the Office of River Protection (ORP), which is a subset DOE. For this project, the DOE previously worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent agency established by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 to regulate civilian use of nuclear materials.
A 2001 NRC report stated that a 2.4 percent annual risk existed of a major radiological or chemical accident occurring within the vitrification plant each year over the 28-year expected lifespan usage, if no future correctional steps were taken. This works out to a 50 percent chance of a major incident over the course of the lifespan of plant operations. Later that year, DOE cut its ties to the NRC, leaving only ORP to address the issues. DOE has never issued a response to the NRC report. GAP collaborated on a report released in 2004, detailing additional major problems with the plant that also resurrected this issue. This 2004 report was authored by Robert Alvarez, a former Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment. The report was published in Princeton’s Science and Global Security Newsletter in May 2005.
Carpenter called for action from state and federal politicians: “The problem is not that Congress needs to fund the vitrification plant and Hanford clean-up – most experts already agree that is what is sorely needed. The problem is a lack of independent oversight. The Department of Energy is conflicted as the owner of the plant, and has shown that it lacks the competence or the will to oversee its contractor. Independent oversight is the only way to solve this problem.”
Whistleblowers have provided GAP information on precisely how internal quality programs broke down at Bechtel. These same whistleblowers complained about being harassed and threatened for attempting to bring up safety issues.