Quality assurance procedures were not always followed for vessels inside Hanford's vitrification plant black cells, where no inspections or maintenance can be done for 40 years because of high radiation levels, according to a draft report of a Department of Energy Inspector General audit.
"The importance of ... black cell and hard-to-reach components cannot be overstated," the draft report said. "Premature failure of these components could potentially contaminate large portions of a multi-billion dollar facility and interrupt waste processing for an unknown period of time."
In addition, DOE might have overpaid contractor Bechtel National for some work related to black cell tanks or vessels, the draft said. No record has been found to show that $15 million was returned, it said.
The draft of the audit report was distributed to Bechtel and DOE for fact checking and then leaked to several media outlets, including the Herald. Changes could be made to the final draft, which also will include a DOE response laying out steps it will take to address audit recommendations.
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Bechtel was paid $15 million in 2003 for a vessel in the vitrification plant, the draft report said. The $12.2 billion plant is being built to treat radioactive waste left from weapons plutonium production for permanent disposal.
When DOE learned the vessel lacked adequate quality assurance records in 2004, it demanded that $15 million be returned, the draft report said. Bechtel and DOE disagreed with some of DOE's assertions and asked to meet with DOE to resolve the issue.
No records of the meeting or Bechtel's repayment of the fee could be found, and DOE officials were uncertain if the fee had been repaid, the draft report said.
In addition, the draft report found that a second $15 million payment was made to Bechtel in 2005 for four vessels, one of which was found to lack adequate quality assurance records after it was installed, the draft report said.
However, a different performance fee criteria applied that prevented DOE from recovering money paid to Bechtel after the vessel had been installed, the draft report said.
The Office of Inspector General review also turned up multiple instances in which quality assurance records related to vessels in black cells and other difficult-to-reach places were missing or not traceable to individual vessels, the draft report said.
"Without improvements to the quality assurance process and acquiring the necessary quality assurance records, the department may not be able to demonstrate that the (vitrification plant) facilities are safe," the draft report said.
The records could be crucial for a response in an emergency, the draft report said. They also could be required to address flaws in materials and helpful if DOE later wants to determine the safety of operating the plant beyond its 40-year design life, the draft report said.
DOE's oversight was not adequate to identify weaknesses in the quality assurance program, the draft review said.
Bechtel employed inspectors at its suppliers' locations to witness work and approve quality assurance record packages, the draft report said. However, the on-site inspectors lacked the qualifications to interpret tests of nuclear-quality welds as required in Bechtel's contract, the draft report said.
"To its credit, the department took prompt action on some of the issues identified during our audit," the draft report said.
DOE looks forward to continued improvement, said Lori Gamache, DOE spokeswoman.
"Assuring the safe and effective operation of these vessels is critical to the success of the facility, and we appreciate the inspector general's attention to the issue," she said.
Bechtel expects to complete its fact checking of the draft report today and will comment when a final report is released, said Bechtel spokeswoman Suzanne Heaston.