Feds dock half of Hanford contractor’s pay, citing issues at massive nuclear waste plant

Virtual tour of Hanford Vit Plant

Take a virtual tour of the world's largest radioactive waste treatment plant. The Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, also known as the Vit Plant, will use vitrification to immobilize most of Hanford's dangerous tank waste.
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Take a virtual tour of the world's largest radioactive waste treatment plant. The Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, also known as the Vit Plant, will use vitrification to immobilize most of Hanford's dangerous tank waste.

Bechtel National received slightly less than 48 percent of the possible incentive pay for work at Hanford in 2018, the Department of Energy announced Tuesday.

It was in line with some of the worst performance evaluations for the Hanford vitrification plant contractor since Bechtel voluntarily gave up its incentive pay for the second half of 2012.

Bechtel is reimbursed for costs and can earn incentive pay — or its “fee” as it is called by DOE — to make a profit on its work to design, build and commission the $17 billion vitrification plant to glassify radioactive waste.

Among the concerns are quality control issues and making sure the plant operates safely once it begins handling nuclear waste.

The federal government will pay the company close to $3.8 million of the maximum incentive pay possible of almost $7.9 million for its work last year.

It was paid a similar amount in 2017 when it earned 48 percent of its possible incentive pay.

Bechtel also is eligible for some additional pay when it meets deadlines for completing certain work.

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The Hanford vitrification plant campus is shown at night. Courtesy Bechtel National

Bechtel gave up its pay for the last six months of 2012 after technical issues on parts of the plant that will handle high level radioactive waste halted construction on the part of the plant’s High Level Waste Facility and its Pretreatment Facility.

Bechtel’s work ‘satisfactory’

Technical issues have yet to be fully resolved.

Since then Bechtel has had some years with better performance reviews than its current one, including earning 66 percent of possible pay in 2015 and 71 percent in 2016.

Bechtel was awarded the vitrification plant contract in late 2000, with ground broken on the massive plant in 2002.

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

Bechtel National’s project director for the plant, Valerie McCain, told employees in a message Tuesday that the contractor’s performance had been rated “satisfactory” or “good” for each area evaluated.

The overall rating was “satisfactory.”

DOE released a three-page scorecard summarizing its evaluation, listing Bechtel’s achievements in 2018 and also areas needing improvements.

Areas for improvement

The long construction period for the plant has created issues in maintaining components of the plant installed years earlier to make sure they do not fail or need replacement before the plant starts operating, according to the scorecard.

DOE has federal court-enforced deadlines to start treating low-activity radioactive waste by 2023 and have the plant fully operational, including treating high-level radioactive waste, by 2036.

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The Effluent Management Facility will process effluents created during offgas treatment at the Low-Activity Waste Facility at the Hanford vitrification plant. Courtesy Bechtel National

Bechtel also needs to do better at meeting deadlines for testing components of the plant and turning over systems from construction to be commissioned to prepare for plant operations, the scorecard said.

The contractor has had a backlog of maintenance and some troubles finding replacement parts for systems that may have been installed several years ago.

Some issues have not been identified until employees were working to start up individual systems, DOE said.

DOE also is concerned about the Material Handling Facility, where construction material is stored, some of it outdoors.

Most of the construction has been completed on parts of the plant that will be needed to treat low activity waste.

But materials for the Pretreatment Facility, where construction remains halted, and part of the High Level Waste Facility are stored there.

The Material Handling Facility also handles the materials for the Effluent Management Facility, a new support facility needed because the Pretreatment Facility will not be operating when the first waste is treated by 2023.

Bechtel has taken some actions to reduce costs at the Material Handling Facility, such as using radio-frequency identification tags and a robot shop vacuum, but more work is needed to reduce costs, DOE said.

They could include steps such as paving the yard where materials are kept or covering it with gravel to reduce maintenance.

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Employees review documents near a pipe rack in the Effluent Management Facility process building at the Hanford vitrification plant. Courtesy Bechtel National

As of the end of 2018 Bechtel had not reduced the number of workers at the facility as DOE had requested, according to the scorecard.

The scorecard also said that some nuclear-safety related issues happened that Bechtel did not resolve as quickly as DOE would have liked, but the scorecard did not specify which issues.

Bechtel National praised for successes

Bechtel has made progress on resolving some of those issues since the start of 2019, after the period covered in the evaluation released Tuesday.

Among achievements listed in the scorecard was the work by Bechtel to provide information to the Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator, for the state dangerous waste permits needed for the Effluent Management Facility.

Bechtel also improved coordination and tracking on activities that support its program to prepare the plant and its workforce to begin treating low activity waste by 2023.

Employees use pressurized water to excavate a trench for piping installations throughout the jobsite Courtesy Bechtel National

Bechtel successfully updated the schedule for the project to reflect changing conditions, the scorecard said.

It also continued to take steps to address worker concerns about safety culture on the project. Reports in past years questioned whether the behavior of Bechtel management could be deterring the timely reporting and resolution of technical concerns related to the future safe operation of the plant.

McCain told workers that Bechtel needed to continue listening to DOE’s needs and delivering quality results.

Overall, the DOE assessment reinforces that Bechtel is on the right path to address issues with the highest levels of safety and quality in a transparent and comprehensive manner, she told employees.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.