$23 billion of Hanford contracts delayed. Current contractors to continue cleanup — for now

The Department of Energy will extend two of the major environmental cleanup contracts at Hanford for up to a year, rather than putting new contracts into place before the others expire Sept. 30 as planned.

The extensions give some certainty to cleanup work being done by about 5,000 workers, allowing them to continue work uninterrupted without contractors starting to gear down for a transition period to a possible new contractor.

Washington River Protection Solutions could continue to manage and retrieve the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks at the nuclear reservation through Sept. 30.

And CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. could continue cleanup in the center of the site, some remaining cleanup near the Columbia River and treatment of contaminated groundwater through the same date.

“Evaluations of proposals for follow-on contracts, the Tank Closure Contract and the Central Plateau Cleanup Contract, continue in earnest,” said a DOE memo sent to Hanford employees Tuesday morning.

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Washington River Protection Solution workers are preparing to start retrieving radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the tanks in the Hanford nuclear reservation’s AX Tank Farms. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

“Extension of the current contracts would only be in force as long as needed after award of new contracts and transition periods to the new contractors,” it said.

Time ran short for contracts

A contract extension of some length appeared inevitable as August started, giving less than a two-month transition period to new contracts and possibly new contractors before existing contracts expired in September.

Washington River Protection Solutions is owned by Aecom and Atkins and has about 2,330 employees

CH2M is owned by Jacobs Engineering and employs about 1,660 people.

New contractors typically hire the majority of the former contractors’ workers.

Highly radioactive sludge is being shipped from the K East Basin near the Columbia River to dry storage at T Plant in central Hanford. Courtesy Department of Energy

Both Washington River Protection Solutions and CH2M start their 12th year of work at Hanford on Oct. 1 under the contract extension.

DOE could award one of its additional two remaining multi-billion-dollar contracts soon.

DOE has not said when it will extend its contract for site-wide services now held by Mission Support Alliance, which employs about 1,960 people.

However, Leidos, the primary owner of Mission Support Alliance, told investors July 30 that it was hopeful that the new site services contract would be awarded within weeks.

It covers services such as utilities, roads, information technology and security across the site.

The 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington state was used to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.

Environmental cleanup, which began at the end of the Cold War, is expected to continue into the second half of this century.

New Hanford contracts

The new tank farm contract is valued at up to $13 billion over a decade and the central Hanford cleanup and the site-wide support services contracts are each valued at up to $10 billion over a decade.

The contract for Bechtel National, which is designing, building and starting up the $17 billion vitrification plant to treat tank waste at Hanford, is not up for renewal.

Ironworkers at Hanford’s Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility recently completed upgrades on a 15-ton crane that will support the eventual transfer of 1,936 radioactive cesium and strontium capsules from an underwater basin to safer dry storage. Courtesy Department of Energy

The contract extension for CH2M will allow it to complete important work before the transition to the new contract, said Ty Blackford, president of CH2M at Hanford, in a message to employees Tuesday.

The work includes demolition of the highly radioactively contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant and moving highly radioactive sludge from underwater storage in the K East Basin near the Columbia River to dry storage in the center of the Hanford site, Blackford said.

It also will allow work to advance to remove the highly radioactive soil from a spill beneath the 324 Building just north of Richland and to move radioactive cesium and strontium capsules out of an aging concrete pool to dry storage in casks, he said.

Work on the transition had already begun and will leave CH2M well prepared when the new contract is awarded, Blackford said.

At the tank farms, work should continue uninterrupted to soon resume the removal of waste from the next groups of underground and leak-prone single shell tanks. The waste will be moved for storage in sturdier double shell tanks until it can be treated for disposal.

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Environmental cleanup is underway at Hanford in Eastern Washington state after production of plutonium through the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Courtesy Department of Energy

Work has been underway to build infrastructure for the efficient removal of waste in the A and AX Tank Farms following completion of work to empty the 16 tanks in the group called C Tank Farm in late 2017.

The extension of the tank farm contract is a reflection of DOE’s confidence in Washington River Protection Solution’s ability to safely continue work, said John Eschenberg, contractor president, in a message to employees on Tuesday.

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.