U.S. Report Says Oversight of Hanford Waste Plant Unfocused

The U.S. contractor building a $12.2 billion plant to process millions of gallons of radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear site for safe storage didn’t always ensure parts met required reviews, a U.S. report found.

Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman said in the report released today that U.S. oversight of the program had significant shortcomings, and that Bechtel Corp. didn’t always follow its design protocols to ensure the quality of the components for the waste-treatment plant met specifications.

Bechtel, which is based in San Francisco, also couldn’t always verify whether deviations from those design requirements affected safety, the report said.

“The department’s oversight of Bechtel’s quality assurance program lacked focus,” according to the Friedman’s report, which was released today. The problems it identified led to “the creation of major design vulnerabilities,” the report said.

The Hanford site in Washington state produced plutonium for the U.S.’s fleet of nuclear weapons from World War II through the Cold War. The treatment plant is designed to process 56 million gallons of waste that is now stored in 177 underground tanks prone to leaks. The report released today did not address problems with the tanks.

Vitrification Process

The Energy Department’s Environmental Management office, which oversees the Hanford clean-up, said it will take action to address the issues raised by the audit. Bechtel said in a reply included in the report that its corrective steps would be implemented no later than Sept. 30.

“We are refining our procedures and have conducted staff training to achieve the compliance we desire and require,” Peggy McCullough, Bechtel’s manager for the Waste Treatment Plant Project, said in a statement responding to the IG report.

Once constructed, the treatment plant will separate the waste into high-level and low-level waste, and then solidify it for storage in a glass mixture through a process known as vitrification.

The Inspector General’s findings focus on the process by which suppliers deviate from Bechtel’s original design plans to account for unforeseen issues that arise during the plant’s construction. Those changes weren’t always appropriately approved or adequately documented, according to the report.

These included changes to a pressure vessel designed to confine dangerous processing of fluids, gases and vapors, the Inspector General said.

Supplier Design

After being told of the problem, Bechtel reviewed supplier design change requests for the previous three years. Of the 4,028 documents, 1,425 hadn’t received sufficient review, the report stated.

Bechtel then suspended approvals of the supplier design changes to retrain workers.

The company also couldn’t demonstrate that it “had always verified that suppliers had made and tested repairs to equipment that may affect nuclear safety,” the report said.

One related to the quality of a lid designed to confine dangerous gases produced during the vitrification process, according to the Inspector General.

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