IG audit criticizes quality control of Hanford vit plant

October 3, 2013 

The nuclear waste vitrification plant at Hanford.

TRI-CITY HERALD FILE

— Hanford officials have not followed procedures to prove that changes to the design of radioactive waste processing equipment at the Hanford vitrification plant will be safe once the plant begins operating, according to a new audit.

The Department of Energy Office of Inspector General released a report Thursday on a quality assurance audit of the plant.

Suppliers are expected to build tanks and other processing equipment to Bechtel’s design documents or specification, but sometimes changes are needed because of unforeseen issues.

When suppliers requested changes or needed to make repairs, the appropriate safety review of design changes was not always conducted by Bechtel National, the contractor building the plant, according to the audit.

In addition, Bechtel did not always verify that the finished equipment delivered in those cases, including repaired equipment, adhered to the approved design changes and met safety standards.

“The lack of a robust design control process makes it difficult to ascertain whether ... workers, members of the public and the environment are adequately protected,” the report said.

DOE was criticized for a lack of focus in its oversight of Bechtel’s quality assurance program.

The audit findings follow two previous audits by the Office of Inspector General, most recently in 2012, that also identified quality assurance problems at the vitrification plant.

“Clearly the problem has not been resolved,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the chairman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, said Thursday in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The $12.2 billion plant is being built by Bechtel National for DOE 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 for the nation’s nuclear weapons plant.

The review by the Office of Inspector General began in mid-2012 in response to an allegation that Bechtel was missing documentation of the vit plant design and could not demonstrate that the equipment was appropriately manufactured, according to the audit.

As the audit progressed it became apparent that there was a problem and DOE and Bechtel began making improvements before the review was completed.

Bechtel found that over time, procedures for complying with nuclear-quality construction requirements had become over-complicated, leading to inaccurate interpretations, Peggy McCullough, Bechtel project director, said in a message to employees Thursday.

“We are refining our procedures and have conducted staff training to achieve the compliance we desire and require,” she said.

Early in the audit, the Office of Inspector General pointed out instances to Bechtel and DOE in which design changes requested by suppliers had not received adequate safety reviews. Bechtel launched its own review of documents covering supplier designs over three years.

It discovered that more than a third of 4,028 supplier design documents had not received the required safety review and approval to ensure the safe operation of the plant. Bechtel’s review also found that the problems were systemic, the Office of Inspector General report said.

Although the review found changes that should have undergone a safety review, none of the changes have been found to affect the safe operation of the plant, according to Bechtel.

The Office of Inspector General audit also found examples of Bechtel not making sure that approved design changes were implemented during equipment fabrication.

In one example, a melter lid became distorted during manufacturing. The melter will be used to heat low-activity radioactive waste and other materials to turn the waste into a stable glass form, and the lid is needed prevent harmful gases from escaping the melter.

However, Bechtel could not provide evidence that the supplier made the repairs to the lid or that it examined the repair to make sure it met requirements. The failure “carried with it potentially serious implications,” the review said.

When construction of the vitrification plant is completed and before it begins operating as required in 2019, Bechtel is required to provide documentation of its design to DOE. However, it has not obtained supporting documentation from equipment suppliers for changes made to the design of equipment, according to the audit report.

One major supplier only retains records for five years, and the vitrification plant construction could stretch over two decades, the audit report said. Without complete design documentation, the plant is likely to face delays and increased costs during reviews needed to approve the start of operations of the plant, the report said.

Wyden said in his letter that the persistence of quality control and quality assurance problems should have been addressed in a major DOE report released last week after a yearlong look at plant issues.

The report outlined a framework for a path forward for construction and operation at the vitrification plant, given technical issues that have called into question its safe and efficient operation.

Wyden asked that Moniz explain why quality issues were not included in the framework report and what actions DOE plans to take to address continuing quality issues at Hanford and other DOE environmental cleanup sites.

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