Top engineer called for stop to work at vit plant

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 17, 2013 

The former top Department of Energy engineer for Hanford's vitrification plant recommended that work be stopped on the project in December before resigning weeks later.

Gary Brunson, the former DOE engineering division director for the vitrification plant, sent the "stop work" recommendation to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Dec. 19.

Then he resigned from DOE early this month, according to Hanford Challenge, which released the leaked memo Wednesday. Brunson has not talked publicly about his concerns.

However, he had sent an earlier memo to DOE Hanford officials about his concerns about technical issues at the $12.2 billion plant, which is being constructed as work on its design continues.

In a memo this summer he said contractor Bechtel National should be removed as the design authority, which is responsible for establishing the plant's design requirements.

The plant is being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium at Hanford for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

In December Brunson told Chu that six Priority Level 1 Findings and one pending finding by DOE on the project in 2011 and 2012 raised issues about quality.

Together they were evidence of a condition of "indeterminate quality," which makes suspension of work appropriate, he wrote in the memo, quoting from DOE Hanford quality assurance policy documents.

In addition, a letter two months ago from DOE to Bechtel provided further evidence of indeterminate quality, Brunson said. The letter called for Bechtel to evaluate purchases back to Feb. 22, 2007, to make sure all nuclear quality assurance requirements were specified, according to Brunson's memo.

Brunson called for "all activities affecting engineering design, nuclear safety, and construction and installation of all structures, systems and components be stopped to avoid further nuclear safety compromises and substantial rework."

He also called for a review of the DOE findings by an independent agency such as the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Army Corps of Engineers.

Last year, DOE stopped construction work affected by technical issues at the plant's Pretreatment Facility and High-Level Waste Facility.

However, Chu announced Tuesday that DOE was ready to start ramping construction back up at much of the High-Level Waste Facility as work continues to resolve technical issues in two black cells. Those areas will be too radioactive for workers to enter after operations begin.

"The department will continue, and as appropriate, ramp up construction work not impacted by the remaining technical issues," DOE said in a statement in response to the release of Brunson's memo. "The (vitrification plant) project will also continue to systematically address all of the issues in order to confidently resume the remaining construction and complete a safe and reliable facility."

The Priority 1 Findings described by Brunson included issues with designs submitted by equipment or material vendors for the plant, calculations for the plant's design that included numbers without appropriate technical justification and management performance issues.

Having multiple Priority 1 Findings on a project is unusual. But projects of the size and complexity of the vitrification plant also are unusual.

"Gary Brunson was the top official for the engineering division at the plant and a top flight nuclear engineer, with over 25 years with the nuclear Navy," said Tom Carpenter, director of Hanford Challenge, in a statement.

Carpenter called Brunson's departure and memo an example of DOE's failure to assure that safety concerns are adequately addressed.

Frank Russo, the Bechtel National project director, said after Brunson's memo became public this summer that Bechtel is confident that the plant will operate safely and efficiently while protecting the public, the environment and the employees who operate the plant.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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