Bechtel National has agreed to pay a $170,000 fine in a settlement with the Department of Energy over quality issues in construction of the vitrification plant at Hanford.
In spring 2009, DOE officials conducted an investigation and identified "significant technical and quality issues" with the efforts of suppliers to meet nuclear quality standards in material provided for the plant, according to DOE documents.
Bechtel had worked to improve its own nuclear quality issues over the past three years, but the improvements had not flowed down to suppliers, and Bechtel had exercised insufficient oversight, the documents said.
After the investigation, Bechtel suspended shipments until they had been reviewed to ensure suppliers met standards of nuclear quality programs. The issues stemmed from documenting that requirements had been met, said Suzanne Heaston, Bechtel spokeswoman.
Because there's been little nuclear construction in the United States in recent decades, Bechtel has faced a challenge in purchasing nuclear quality materials for the plant. But it has worked to develop qualified suppliers, helping companies learn and meet nuclear quality standards.
The $12.3 billion plant is being built to turn up to 53 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of plutonium at Hanford into a stable glass form for disposal.
DOE has issued at least three notices of violations to Bechtel related to nuclear quality issues in the past five years, with proposed fines of $198,000 in 2006, $165,000 in 2007 and $385,000 in 2008.
However, for the supplier issue identified in 2009, the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security's Office of Enforcement signed a consent agreement with Bechtel rather than taking enforcement action, such as issuing another notice of violation, after it found Bechtel had made improvements.
Among supplier problems was inadequacy in determining the critical characteristics of materials and components, according to a letter to Bechtel from the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security's Office of Enforcement.
Suppliers' sampling techniques were not properly conducted and methods used to determine whether materials would be accepted for use were not clearly defined, according to the letter.
Of particular concern was Bechtel's failure to adequately correct problems after it agreed to make corrections in its nuclear quality program in 2007, according to the letter. Among planned actions was reviewing suppliers to verify they were conforming to the Bechtel supplier quality program, the letter said.
"Although additional costs have resulted from these problems, it appears at this time that the deficiencies did not result in the receipt or installation of materials or components that did not meet established requirements and specifications," the letter said.
After problems were identified most recently, Bechtel took appropriate action and evaluated the extent of the problem, the letter said. It also held workshops to increase the understanding of suppliers. Because of its work, awareness across the DOE complex was heightened, the letter said.
However, the consent agreement said DOE was concerned Bechtel may not be taking a sufficiently broad view of potential weaknesses in its oversight of subcontractors and suppliers beyond its vendor quality programs and similar underlying weaknesses may exist in other areas.
In the past, Bechtel failed to correct known problems with construction activities in time to prevent purchase and in some cases installation of material or equipment that did not meet requirements, the consent agreement said.
Because past plans of correction have not been sufficient to prevent the issues identified in 2009, Bechtel has agreed to take additional steps. It also is to assess the effectiveness of its corrective actions, continue efforts to foster support of nuclear safety and quality and make improvements to its supplier qualification program.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald. com; more Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.