GAO slams Hanford vit plant project

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 19, 2013 

The Hanford vitrification plant has not been well planned, well managed or well executed, according to a Government Accountability Office review requested by Congress and released Friday.

"Daunting technical challenges that will take significant effort and years to resolve combined with a near tripling of project costs and a decade of schedule delays raise troubling questions as to whether this project can be constructed and operated successfully," the GAO said.

"Additional cost increases amounting to billions of dollars and schedule delays of years are almost certain to occur," it said.

Among GAO's recommendations to improve management of the project is determining if incentive payments were made by DOE to its contractor, Bechtel National, for project milestones that were not met. Erroneous payments should be recovered, the report said.

DOE will perform a review of all milestones and incentive fee payments between January 2009 and now, said David Huizenga, senior advisor for the DOE Office of Environmental Management, in a written response to the GAO.

"The department is supportive of clawback of fees paid to its contractors where appropriate, for instance when the quality of an item has been subsequently determined not to have met requirements," he said.

Since 2009, DOE has paid Bechtel about $24.2 million or 63 percent of its $38.6 million incentive fee based, in part, on Bechtel meeting cost and schedule targets and resolving technical challenges with waste mixing, the GAO report said.

However, the vitrification plant project now is at serious risk of missing major future cost and schedule targets, and it has been determined by DOE "that the waste mixing technical challenges were not resolved at all," the report said.

At least three more years of testing and analysis will be needed for project scientists and engineers to fully resolve mixing issues, the report said.

But the current Bechtel contract has no mechanism for recovering an incentive fee paid for work subsequently determined to be insufficient, DOE officials told the GAO.

DOE has improved the process and documentation for contract milestone payments, but more improvement is needed, Huizenga said.

DOE could consider modifying contracts to withhold payment until technical challenges are independently verified to be resolved, the GAO report said.

Bechtel and DOE have said that the most recent contract delays are the result of, among other things, Congress not providing the required funding to resolve technical issues, the report said.

But the GAO believes the more credible explanation is DOE's decision more than a decade ago to proceed with construction as the design for the plant is being developed is at the root of problems, the report said. Nuclear industry guidelines suggest completing 90 percent of design prior to beginning construction, the report said.

"DOE instead began construction when design of the facility was in the early stages and insisted on developing new technologies and completing design efforts while construction was ongoing," the report said.

Construction of the plant is more than 55 percent complete though the design is only about 80 percent complete, it said. Concrete began to be poured for the plant in 2002, and it's legally required to start operating in 2019.

The plan was to start construction early on the plant to allow the plant to begin treating 56 million gallons of radioactive waste for disposal as soon as possible. The waste, some of it stored in leak-prone underground tanks, is left from past production of weapons plutonium.

The result of the early start of construction has been significant rework of parts of the design, and some equipment that already has been installed may need to be removed and remade, the report said.

Among alternatives being considered for waste mixing issues is scrapping five to 10 already completed tanks to be used within the plant and replacing them with vessels with more easily verifiable designs, the report said.

Technical challenges are especially acute within the Pretreatment Facility and High Level Waste Facility, both of which will handle high-level waste. Technologies require "perfect reliability" over 40 years because parts of the plant will be too radioactive for workers to enter once processing begins, the report said.

Estimates for costs and time needed to resolve technical issues have not been made, but the cost of the plant could increase by billions of dollars if technical challenges cannot be easily and quickly resolved, the report said.

In 2000, the plant was estimated to cost $4.3 billion and begin operating in 2007. The last in-depth estimate, completed in 2006, put the price at $12.2 billion, and an estimate in May raised the cost to $13.4 billion.

One alternative being considered is to "precondition" waste before it comes to the vitrification plant to remove the largest solid particles, which would make the waste easier to keep mixed. If plutonium particles build up in tanks in the plant, they pose a small risk of a criticality.

Preconditioning the waste could add $2 billion to $3 billion to the cost of the project, the report said.

Other alternatives being considered include reducing the amount of waste the plant treats or operating it at a slower pace for a longer period of time, significantly increasing the cost of treating all waste, the report said.

Further construction delays also would result in significant cost increases. DOE has estimated that a four-year delay in the startup date could increase the cost of waste treatment by $6 billion to $8 billion.

Resolving technical issues is a top priority and Energy Secretary Steven Chu and a team of experts have devoted five to 10 hours a week to the issue for the past four months, Huizenga said.

Earlier this week DOE announced that it would begin to ramp up construction on the High Level Waste Facility after stopping most building until more was known about technical concerns. Technical concerns have been confined to an area of the building with two tanks with possible mixing issues and construction can resume elsewhere, DOE said.

However, at the Pretreatment Facility, construction will remain limited to work to keep it in a useable condition until technical issues are further resolved.

The GAO report recommended that construction on the two facilities at the plant continue only on a limited approved plan until technical and management issues are resolved.

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