Vit plant tanks failed to meet quality assurance, contract requirements

HANFORD -- Tanks installed in the $12.2 billion vitrification plant did not always meet quality assurance or contract requirements, according to a new audit report by the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General.

It also raised questions about whether DOE recouped $15 million in incentive pay to Bechtel National for production of a tank, or vessel, that was later was determined to be defective.

"For the vessels that we reviewed, we identified multiple instances where quality assurance records were either missing or were not traceable to the specific area or part of the vessel," said a memo for Inspector General Gregory Friedman to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

The memo and audit report confirmed details in a draft inspector general report the Herald obtained and reported on in January.

The tanks in question were installed in black cells, sealed compartments that will be too radioactive for workers to enter once waste processing begins, or in other difficult-to-reach areas where repairs or maintenance will be difficult.

"The importance of black cells and hard-to-reach components cannot be overstated," the memo said. "Premature failure of these components could potentially impact safety, contaminate large portions of a multi-billion dollar facility and interrupt waste processing for an unknown period of time."

The vitrification plant is being built to turn much of 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal starting in 2019. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium at Hanford for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

The audit raised questions about missing quality assurance documentation that provide quality verification for 10 weld records out of 2,000 weld records in black cell and hard-to-reach vessels, said Bechtel spokesman Todd Nelson.

Bechtel will make sure the quality assurance documents are available for all of the black cell and difficult-to-reach vessels before the plant begins operating, he said. Having the documents is a requirement of the operational readiness review that must be passed before the plant starts operating.

The vessels at issue were purchased and delivered from 2002 to 2005, with no vessels of that type received since then.

"While we recognize that the number of welds missing NDE (nondestructive examination) records represented a small percentage of total welds, the fact that Bechtel could not provide documentation demonstrating that all welds had been tested is troubling because a weld failure will essentially make the vessel unusable due to the inability to fix or repair a vessel after the start of operations," the audit report said.

The inspector general report also found a number of instances where quality assurance requirements were not completely followed for processing vessels.

Bechtel did not obtain or maintain weld maps identifying the specific location of each weld and information on welding procedures, the qualifications of the welder and materials used in the vessels, the memo said.

Bechtel also did not have documentation on some material tests, which ensure that the materials used to fabricate the vessels are compatible with existing operating conditions, the memo said.

Weaknesses in quality assurance records occurred because of deficiencies in Bechtel's implementation of its quality assurance program and a lack of DOE oversight, the memo said.

Bechtel had inspectors located at contractor locations to witness work and approve quality assurance record packages.

"However, in our judgment, because the on site inspectors lacked the welding qualification to interpret weld NDE results, Bechtel's acceptance process was inadequate," the memo said.

Its procedures also were too basic, such as determining that the expected numbers of pagesof documentation were received, the memo said.

DOE disagreed in its response to the audit report, saying on-site inspectors were adequately qualified and could verify that another individual conducting the weld examination was qualified.

However, the Office of Inspector General said that while qualifications technically have been met, it would be prudent to require that on site inspectors be fully qualified in welding practices to reduce the risk of fabrication errors, given the serious consequences if a problem occurs.

The audit report credited DOE with taking prompt actions to address the deficiencies identified, but said additional actions are necessary to verify the implementation and effectiveness of the corrections made for the vessels and prevent unnecessary risk.

The memo also said the fact that prior reviews performed by Bechtel and the department failed to fully identify the extent of the problems indicates that weaknesses in oversight still exist.

Over the past few years DOE has conducted technical surveillances on vessels, placed a hold on all future black cell vessel installations until key design verification activities can be independently reviewed and directed Bechtel to correct the deficiencies and undertake a review to better understand the full scope of the issue, said Lori Gamache, a DOE spokeswoman at Hanford.

On the issue of Bechtel's incentive pay, the audit report said DOE gave Bechtel a $15 million incentive fee in 2003 for a vessel that lacked adequate quality assurance payments and then requested in 2004 that the money be returned to DOE.

However, DOE did not take aggressive issue to retrieve the payment, the audit report said.

In addition, a second $15 million payment was made in 2005 for four vessels, one of which lacked adequate quality assurance records. However, by then a different payment criteria applied that denied DOE the ability to recover the payment for the vessel after it was installed, the audit report said.

DOE told the Office of Inspector General that Bechtel may have completed the work required to earn the first $15 million payment at a later date. In addition, when a new cost and schedule were determined for the vitrification plant in 2006, all payments and costs for Bechtel and DOE were reconciled.

That was included in a contract modification in 2009, which represented a settlement of all payment issues prior to that date, including the $15 million payment, according to DOE.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com