DOE finds performance issues at Hanford vit plant, raising concerns about Bechtel management

May 5, 2012 

Significant performance issues at the Hanford vitrification plant have raised serious concerns about Bechtel National's management system, according to a newly released Department of Energy report.

The concern came to light in the most recently released weekly staff report of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which said that DOE had identified a Priority Level 1 finding "associated with the potential breakdown in contractor management and their less than adequate performance."

"This finding was identified as a result of several recent DOE oversight activities in which inadequate performance was an issue," the defense board staff report said. "The report concludes that these performance issues 'could have significant impacts on the successful completion of the (vitrification plant) project.' "

DOE project director Dale Knutson sent Bechtel a letter March 20 saying that based on the cumulative impact of issues identified, "It is important for BNI (Bechtel) to step back, identify the underlying organizational processes and values driving these findings, and address them effectively."

The Herald obtained the letter and attached reports this week.

Bechtel has the processes in place to identify issues, but needs to use the processes effectively, said Delmar Noyes, DOE deputy project director for field operations. It is missing opportunities to identify issues early, he said.

The most recent issue, which DOE also classified as a Priority Level 1 finding, was identified in a DOE surveillance of the project's management of design and safety margins, which make sure the design has enough conservatism for the plant to operate as required.

The $12.2 billion vitrification plant is being built to turn much of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of weapons plutonium.

The plant, which has been under construction since 2001, is being built as portions of the design for it are completed, which requires ample design margins to account for uncertainties and risks that may be encountered as work progresses and the plant eventually operates.

"DOE found the contractor did not establish a margin management strategy that maintained design and safety margins commensurate with a design-build project," the defense board staff report said.

DOE believes that Bechtel has built margin into the design, Noyes said. "It is just not clearly documented and managed," he said.

Bechtel has had opportunities since 2002 to make improvements in its margin management strategy, according to DOE's review of the vit plant's design and safety margin management strategy.

In 2002, the defense board wrote a letter saying it believed that DOE and Bechtel "have not instituted a formal strategy for maintaining design margins as a function of design uncertainties."

Bechtel took immediate actions this spring to address the DOE design and safety margin report, said Todd Nelson, Bechtel spokesman.

It is conducting thorough reviews to determine and implement permanent actions to ensure margin is properly documented, as well as understood by the project's technical staff and staff who ensure nuclear standards are met on the project, he said.

Actions include ensuring that any changes that could impact design margin are thoroughly documented and approved by appropriate officials, Nelson said. Design changes with the potential to affect margin include changes to pressure, temperature, operating levels or the waste fed into the plant.

In addition to inadequate documentation of margins, other recent issues margin that led to DOE's concerns about the potential breakdown in contractor management included a lack of technically justified and defined performance requirements for air conditioning for safety systems in the plant.

Issues also included a lack of required design margin to address corrosion in vessels that will hold high level radioactive waste within the vitrification plant and an Office of Inspector General audit report made public earlier this week that addressed missing quality records for some high level radioactive waste vessels.

The recent shipment of a vessel from England, where Bechtel had later discovered inconsistent procurement records, validated the Inspector General concern, according to the DOE report on its management performance concern.

"The performance issues described indicate BNI's corrective action process has not been fully effective and BNI has not been rigorous in ensuring contract requirements and technical and quality expectations are being met," the DOE report said.

Bechtel is working closely with DOE to ensure adequate design and safety margins and necessary documentation is in place to provide confidence that the facility will operate safely, Nelson said.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service