Audit questions pace of Hanford work

Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant may not be torn down by 2013, despite an infusion of economic stimulus money, warned a new audit by the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General.

In addition, the cost of doing the work has increased, the audit concluded.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant is required under the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement to be torn down by 2016, but DOE and CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. have planned to have the work finished by Sept. 30, 2013.

To meet that goal, the 174 glove boxes and hoods in the plant have been expected to be decontaminated and removed by Sept. 30, 2011. But nearly two years into the CH2M Hill contract at the end of August, the contractor decontaminated only slightly more than half of the glove boxes and hoods, the audit reported.

However, at this time, DOE does not anticipate any effect on the overall project schedule due to the slowdown in the glove box work, said Geoff Tyree, a DOE Hanford spokesman. Work slowed at the plant earlier this year because of safety concerns.

"Cleanup of the Plutonium Finishing Plant is a complex project and the safety of our workers remains a priority," Tyree said. "The contractor has done the right thing by carefully addressing safety concerns."

CH2M Hill management stopped work at the plant this spring to analyze accidents at the plant and make corrections.

In one incident an employee inhaled nitric acid fumes that apparently dripped on his respirator as a liquid chemical feed line was removed. In another incident, a worker cut or scraped his arm through his coveralls on radioactively contaminated debris removed from a glove box.

When work resumed, workers used their right to stop work over safety concerns several times.

In addition, work to decontaminated and remove glove boxes also was slowed over concerns about beryllium, a metal that can cause an incurable lung disease in employees with an genetic susceptibility.

Procedures were revised and extensive sampling was done, which came back clean, said Kurt Workman, spokesman for CH2M Hill.

To increase efficiency in cleaning out the buildings before demolition, CH2M Hill has planned improvements.

The audit said that less than 12 months remain to decontaminate, remove and ship 86 glove boxes from the plant. The plant was used for four decades to make plutonium produced in Hanford reactors into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks for shipment to the nation's weapons production plants. More than half the nation's supply of plutonium came through the plant.

To meet the 2013 date to have the 60 buildings at the plant to slab on grade, CH2M Hill has planned to decontaminate the majority of the plant's glove boxes and hoods to meet low level radioactive waste standards. This allows the glove boxes to be packaged in large containers and taken to the low level radioactive waste landfill in central Hanford.

But if the glove boxes cannot have enough plutonium removed, they will be classified as transuranic waste. The glove boxes then have to be cut into smaller pieces to be packaged for shipment to the nation's repository for transuranic waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

It's more costly, hazardous and time-consuming, the audit noted.

"If (CH2M Hill) is unable to attain its goal of 90 percent of the glove boxes being disposed of at Hanford as low-level waste, the negative schedule and cost trends are at risk of continuing," the audit said.

CH2M Hill is investigating a commercial inorganic-based gel that may remove contamination from the glove box more efficiently under some conditions than a gel now being used that takes several applications. The gels react with contamination on surfaces and then are wiped off.

The audit said the contractor had planned to have the new gel approved more than a year ago.

CH2M Hill has taken a conservative approach to all work with the glove boxes and is continuing to test the new gel, but expects to begin using it soon, Workman said.

CH2M Hill also is setting up a central work station planned to cut up glove boxes that have to be sent to New Mexico more efficiently, Workman said. It should be ready for use next month, he said.

The audit also raised concerns about the cost of work at the plant, concluding that CH2M Hill's allowed cost for the plant over five years was $528 million, but that the total project cost would be $718 million, an increase of about 36 percent.

However, the contract for the total project allows $639 million over eight years of work. DOE expects that cost to increase 13 percent to $718 million.

CH2M Hill received $330 million in economic stimulus money to help with work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant. It allowed the contractor to hire 300 employees, bringing the work force at the plant to about 700.

Several issues have contributed to the 13 percent increase, Tyree said.

Labor rates have increased and DOE has had more work done, including replacing filters in a special negative-pressure ventilation system that's required for safety. In addition, trenches underneath buildings were filled with grout to allow the heavier glove boxes to be moved without breaking through the floor.

DOE also approve installing air conditioning to improve productivity. Workers have been limited in the summer to working for short amounts of time in layers of protective clothing and more workers were needed to help them in and out of the clothing without spreading contamination.

The audit made no formal recommendations, but it did say that the Office of Inspector General soon would be starting an audit of DOE's management of the CH2M Hill contract which would provide a more comprehensive review.