A new national review panel has agreed with the Department of Energy that resolutions for 28 technical issues are adequate for design and construction work to be completed at Hanford's vitrification plant.
It's the latest but not the final word on whether current plans will result in a $12.3 billion plant that will operate safely and efficiently to treat high-level radioactive waste for disposal.
The DOE Office of Inspector General has notified Dave Brockman, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, that it plans to conduct an audit to determine if the 28 issues have been adequately addressed.
In addition the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board plans a rare trip to the Tri-Cities on Thursday and Friday to hold a meeting on operational safety issues.
In May DOE announced plans to name a new national technical panel as a subcommittee to the Environmental Management Advisory Board, with its first task to be looking at vitrification plant issues.
It has concluded that 28 technical issues identified in 2006 may be considered closed. They were identified by an earlier panel that DOE called the "best and brightest" scientists, engineers and industry experts.
The subcommittee's recommendation next will be considered by the full advisory board.
DOE announced in September that it considered the final of the 28 technical issues closed, but said that more testing will be needed to provide confidence that current plans and proposed changes to address issues will be adequate.
"The closure of an issue does not mean that all related technology issues are completely resolved," said the subcommittee's summary report. "Industry experience shows that resolution of technology issues frequently continues during construction and startup."
The closure of the issues by DOE came shortly after the plant's research and technology manager, Walter Tamosaitis, was removed from the job. Tamosaitis believes not all of the 28 issues have been adequately addressed. He has filed a lawsuit in Benton County Superior Court claiming that he was fired for raising safety and performance issues as Bechtel National was worried about losing performance pay if it continued to address issues related to operating the plant.
Bechtel has countered that Tamosaitis was dismissed from the project because his work was completed. Tamosaitis said he was escorted from the building with no notice.
The advisory board subcommittee also was asked to look at the maturity of the vitrification plant's design and potential improvements for the plant.
It concluded that the design of the plant, which is 80 percent complete, is mature enough to allow purchasing of equipment and supplies and construction to proceed. The plant is being built as portions of the design are completed to allow treatment of waste to start as soon as possible.
But the subcommittee was concerned that the vitrification plant and the tank farms where waste is held are not well integrated. DOE should work on unifying the projects and providing joint oversight, the subcommittee said.
"I am eager to review the final recommendations to ensure they are given appropriate consideration and attention," Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary of environmental management, said in a statement.
"Receiving independent and objective evaluation like that of the Environmental Management Advisory Board helps to keep the project on cost and on budget," she said.
The co-chairmen of the subcommittee have had ties to Bechtel, or URS, the principle subcontractor for the project. But DOE's office of the General Counsel conducted "a thorough review of potential conflicts of interest" by members of the subcommittee, DOE said in a statement.
"No subcommittee member has a current financial interest in the work performed under the WTP contract," DOE said.
Dennis Ferrigno, a subcommittee cochairman, works as a senior executive management consultant at CAF & Associates, according to the company's website. His profile on the site lists him as a partner providing consulting to URS, among other firms. He did not return Herald phone calls.
The other co-chairman, Lawrence Papay, was a senior vice president and general manager of Bechtel Technology & Consulting from 1991-99. In addition another one of the eight members of the subcommittee, Bernie Meyers, also is a former Bechtel executive.
The subcommittee has been criticized by the Hanford Advisory Board for its lack of openness.
When it met in the Tri-Cities in June, at least one member of the Hanford Advisory Board was escorted from the meeting room by DOE, and others were told they would not be allowed to attend. Board members were allowed to sit in on a 20-minute session at which Hanford board leaders and the state Department of Ecology were invited to talk.
When Hanford board member Ken Niles discussed the policy with DOE Headquarters, he was told that the meeting was closed because the attorneys said it could be closed, he said.
"I was bothered by that attitude," he said.
The Hanford board has issued advice to DOE, saying that meetings of the Environmental Management Advisory Board and its subcommittees should be closed only when needed for issues such as national security, personal privacy or criminal investigation. And then the rationale for closing the meeting should be clearly explained, the Hanford board said.
DOE spokeswoman Carrie Meyer said the subcommittee meeting was closed because discussions were wide-ranging and to some degree unstructured. This allowed the members to often consider a tentative conclusion then reverse that conclusion based on further discussion or research, she said.
If attendees did not stay for the entire meeting, they would not have the final determination, she said. In addition, subcommittee discussions are based on a large number of technical documents, which are not all cleared for release to the public, she said.
In addition to the lawsuit filed in court, Tamosaitis also has filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, alleging retaliation.
The DOE Office of Inspector General also began looking into allegations of retaliation, but has announced that after a preliminary review it turned information over to the Department of Labor. Both reviews were not needed, it indicated in a letter. However, its complete report has not been made public.
DOE and Tamosaitis' attorney have disagreed about how much financial pressure Bechtel National was under to meet its most recent deadline to provide a report closing out the mixing issue.
But the Performance Evaluation and Measurement Plan for the first six months of the year shows that Bechtel was under more pressure than DOE indicated when asked about the issue by the Herald when Tamosaitis filed a lawsuit last month.
The plan said that Bechtel was eligible for $6.3 million in pay for the first six months of this year, but then added that up to 80 percent of the fee could be withheld if the mixing issue was not resolved by June 30.
DOE considered that Bechtel met that deadline, but because of other issues awarded it slightly less than $4 million of the possible fee.
In the last six months of 2009, Bechtel was eligible to earn up to $6.7 million, but received $3.6 million. DOE's primary concern was its handling of the mixing issue, which Bechtel had said would be resolved by September 2009 and then by a later commitment of December 2009.
"Many independent review teams, composed of recognized experts from industry, academia and the national laboratories have played an active role in our design process," Bechtel said in a statement. "They provide input, evaluate challenges and confirm through many rigorous reviews that the plant will work and that it will work safely and effectively."
* More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.