Hanford company settles retaliation lawsuit after engineer raises nuclear safety concerns

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 has reached a settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought by a former employee at the Hanford vitrification plant now under construction.

The details of the settlement reached by Bechtel and its former employee, Curtis Hall, in federal court have not been made public.

Hall was making his second retaliation complaint against Bechtel, the Department of Energy contractor building the $17 billion plant at the nuclear reservation to turn radioactive waste into a stable glass form.

The waste is left from production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Hall lost his engineering job at the site’s vitrification plant in 2005 in retaliation for raising safety concerns, he claimed.

The Department of Energy Office of Hearings and Appeals Decisions ordered him reinstated in late 2008.

A licensed control systems engineer, he worked for Bechtel until fall 2017, when he again lost his job after repeatedly raising issues in 2016 and 2017. His concerns were related to whether the plant, when completed, would operate safely.

That included claims of reduced standards for water to fight fires.

Other safety claims lawsuits

He claimed that a major earthquake could lead to a fire at the plant and that a robust system would be needed to supply water and allow operators to remain at controls to safely shutdown operations.

He also said that some training was insufficient for controls and instrumentation work, and errors had been made that could contribute to a nuclear accident.

The melter bays at the vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility will be used to heat radioactive and chemical wastes and glass-forming materials to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit to create solid glass forms for long-term storage.

He also said that potentially faulty or substandard software and electrical and instrumentation and control equipment were being installed.

Bechtel said that the issues Hall raised were ones that had previously been raised, investigated and addressed. It claimed that Hall was trying to divert attention from his own shortcomings.

Bechtel’s prime subcontractor on the project in 2015 agreed to settle one lawsuit with some similar claims made by a former employee for $4.1 million.

In 2016, Bechtel and its prime subcontractor agreed to settle another lawsuit with the Department of Justice for $125 million that included allegations of materials and work that did not meet nuclear standards.

Alleged issues occurred when URS was the prime subcontractor, but the company had been purchased by Aecom when the lawsuits settled.

Hall said in court documents that until he lost his job he received “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations” on his annual performance reviews and received merit pay increases.

Bechtel says settlement satisfactory

He required more time to produce documentation than some other engineers because of his attention to technical details, his safety concerns and being assigned to work on a system designed by a subcontractor, rather than Bechtel, according to court documents.

Hall’s managers agreed to end his employment by preselecting him for a layoff in a process that had not been completed, Hall alleged in court documents.

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

He was mandated to participate in a performance improvement plan in late summer 2017, which was a sham because the decision to end his employment had already been made, said court documents.

Bechtel said there had been three performance improvement plans.

Hall was laid off in October 2017. He was immediately put on leave and left the worksite with a security escort. The only other controls and instrumentation engineer laid off continued to work until his “assignment complete” date and was soon rehired.

Hall declined to discuss the settlement beyond information in court documents.

A Bechtel National spokesman said only that the parties “have arrived at a mutually satisfactory resolution of his case.”

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.