DOE director wants Bechtel authority for vit plant cut

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldAugust 28, 2012 

Bechtel National should be removed as the design authority for the Hanford vitrification plant, according to a memo from a key Hanford Department of Energy official overseeing engineering of the project.

Bechtel holds the Department of Energy contract to build the $12.2 billion plant, including serving as the design authority to establish the design requirements and make sure the design process is technically adequate. It also is assigned to design the plant.

"The behavior and performance of Bechtel Engineering places unnecessarily high risk that the WTP (Waste Treatment Plant) design will not be effectively completed, resulting in fully operational facilities," Gary Brunson, DOE engineering division director for the plant, wrote in the memo.

DOE continues to be frustrated with the lack of progress on the project as it continues to work with Bechtel to address ongoing technical issues, said DOE in a written response to the memo.

"Addressing these challenges effectively will require both additional work by the contractor, as well as improved oversight by the department," DOE said.

Brunson sent the memo Thursday to his supervisor, Delmar Noyes, the deputy DOE director for the project, and Scott Samuelson, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection.

It listed 34 instances and technical issues that erode confidence in Bechtel's ability to complete its work as the design authority, according to Brunson.

In some cases, Bechtel provided design solutions and technical advice to DOE that were factually incorrect, not technically viable, not safe for future plant operators or would cost more during operations than other solutions, the memo said.

In addition, some of the solutions Bechtel provided were more difficult or costly to verify than other alternatives or otherwise increased cost or lengthened the schedule to complete the plant, the memo said.

The issues have occurred since Bechtel began working on the project and illustrate its engineering department's general behavior and performance, Brunson wrote in the memo. Repair and rework of faulty design is leading to significant cost increases and lengthening the schedule, he wrote.

DOE recognizes that there are significant technical issues remaining at the plant, some of which have existed for many years, DOE said in its prepared statement released by spokeswoman Carrie Meyer. DOE provided the memo at the Herald's request as it continues to review it. Construction of the one-of-a-kind plant began 10 years ago as work continues on its design.

"The department takes seriously its role overseeing the safe design and delivery of the Waste Treatment Plant, and is continuing to work with Bechtel to address the ongoing technical issues," DOE said.

Construction has slowed on key parts of the plant to resolve technical issues with a mixing system for high-level radioactive waste in tanks within areas of the plant that will be too radioactive for workers to enter once operations start.

Bechtel has not developed a technically adequate and complete plan to resolve the mixing issues, including a contingency plan because of the high risks associated with design verification, Brunson wrote in his memo.

He recommended DOE remove Bechtel immediately as the design authority and establish an independent design authority to best represent the interests of DOE and the future operator of the vitrification plant.

DOE should retain the National Engineering Technology Laboratory to complete a feasibility study of using computational fluid dynamics, a model not used before for nuclear design verification, to verify the plant's mixing design, the memo said.

Brunson called for DOE also to assess strategies proposed by Bechtel to verify the design of tanks within the plant and recommend a preferred strategy based on cost, schedule to complete and schedule for starting the plant. The study should assess vessels already installed and those remaining to install, he said.

In addition, DOE management should always seek its engineering staff's advice to resolve design, construction and commissioning issues both in advance of and also in preference to the vit plant contractor and design authority, he wrote.

"Unlike the contractor, federal staff have no other motive than to represent the interests of the department and the taxpayer," he wrote.

Brunson is the latest technical official assigned to the vitrification plant as a DOE or contractor employee to raise issues.

Don Alexander, a DOE senior scientist at Hanford, successfully used DOE's differing professional opinion process, to raise issues about erosion and corrosion of metal in the plant over its 40-year lifetime. A panel of technical experts concluded in June that his concerns had merit, and testing is being planned.

In November 2011, Donna Busche, manager of environmental nuclear safety at the plant filed a federal whistleblower complaint after she said she raised issues related to nuclear operations at the plant. That followed action by the original whistleblower at the plant, Walter Tamosaitis, the former contractor research and technology manager on the project, who has a lawsuit in federal court against his employer, subcontractor URS.

DOE and Bechtel have been working to improve the safety culture on the project, including to ensure that scientists and engineers feel free to raise issues that may affect the future safe operation of the plant without fear of retribution.

"It's ... important to note that the successful completion of this important project depends on employees continuing to be able to freely raise concerns," DOE said in its statement in response to Brunson's memo.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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