Chuck Spencer, who led work on two of the Department of Energy's prime contracts at Hanford during the past five years, announced Friday that he will retireJan. 20.
He came to Hanford as president of Washington Closure Hanford, leading work to successfully turn around a project that had been plagued with a string of problems over 18 months.
In 2009, he took over leadership of one of Hanford's most challenging projects, operation of the tank farms, where 56 million gallons of radioactive waste are stored in underground tanks.
"I will greatly miss both projects, but, alas, it's time for me to return to the East Coast to allow my wife and I to get back closer to family and aging parents," he said in a message to tank farm employees Friday.
He has a new job lined up, but is not at liberty to discuss it yet, he said.
He will be replaced as president of Washington River Protection Solutions by Mike Johnson, who will serve as acting president while a search is conducted to permanently fill the position. Johnson came to Hanford in May to serve as project operations manager for the tank farm contractor.
When Spencer arrived at Hanford, Washington Closure had been fined $120,000 for a chromium spill, had $100,000 deducted from its pay for electrical safety problems and was facing a scandal over falsified data at the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility. Some workers said in an independent review that they questioned management's commitment to safety.
Spencer's solution was to "set about to rebuild all important systems" and to rebuild them in a way that would last, he said.
"We were able to accomplish so much more after we got systems in place and the regulator confidence back," he said.
Since then, Washington Closure has had years of strong performance and recently set a DOE-wide safety record for decontamination and demolition contractors. Spencer continued to be involved with Washington Closure as chairman of its board of governors after taking a job at the tank farms.
At Washington River Protection Solutions, he followed a similar process, which he believes will continue to yield results.
The contractor has invested in developing new technology, including the Mobile Arm Retrieval System, which shows promise to empty leak-prone single-shell tanks of radioactive waste faster and more efficiently than the less robust systems used so far.
Although no tank has been declared empty to regulator standards since spring 2007, Washington River Protection Solutions recently began emptying two tanks at once, which has not been done in more than a decade.
Spencer also praised workers for setting new safety records in the tank farms, completing $300 million in Recovery Act work on schedule and under budget, and dramatically reducing maintenance backlogs.
He said he is proud of work that will lead to future success at the tank farms, including improved infrastructure, a better working culture and a new integrated systems approach between the tank farms and the vitrification plant, which will treat the waste starting in seven years.
"It's been a great five years," he said.
"I firmly believe that both projects are set up for a very bright and successful future," Spencer told employees.
DOE officials who were insightful and fair, Hanford regulators with open doors, the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council and the many professional and competent small businesses that serve as Hanford subcontractors all contributed to his positive experience in the Tri-Cities, Spencer said.
"Chuck has been key to the River Protection Project's achievements made over the past three years," said Scott Samuelson, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, in a statement. "During this time, we've been very successful in completing our Recovery Act projects, improved our interactions between the River Protection Projects and really started preparing for waste treatment."
The state Department of Ecology has appreciated Spencer's forward thinking and support of a one-system view to integrate the tank farms and vitrification plant, said Dan McDonald, Ecology's tank waste treatment project director.
"We have seen the fruits of those efforts," he said.
Johnson will start work as acting president Jan. 23. He came to Hanford after a four-year stint leading nuclear waste management at the Sellafield Site in the United Kingdom. He as worked at Savannah River, S.C.; Los Alamos, N.M.; and Idaho Falls, Idaho, DOE sites. He also served in the Navy for 21 years, retiring as commanding officer of the USS Sturgeon, a nuclear-powered submarine.