Issues at Hanford Raise Questions About Bechtel

* Issues at Hanford Raise Questions About Bechtel

A report released by Heart of America Northwest, a nuclear watchdog group, as well as documents released recently by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), raise serious concerns about the construction of the Hanford Waste Vitrification Plant. Bechtel National, Inc. is the contractor hired by the Department of Energy (DOE) to build the waste treatment plant.

The Hanford Nuclear Repository, located on the Columbia River in Washington State, is the largest nuclear waste repository in the country. Hanford stores high-level waste generated from the processing of spent nuclear fuel. Over time the underground storage tanks have leaked more than 1 million gallons of liquid nuclear waste into the surrounding environment.

One solution to this problem is the yet to be completed Hanford High-Level Nuclear Vitrification Plant, which will take the liquid waste from the leaking underground tanks and encapsulate it into solid glass-waste logs. These logs will in turn be disposed of in an underground geological repository.

Construction on the Vitrification Plant was halted in summer 2005, due to flaws in the plans. The problem lies in the fact that the project was fast-tracked, and construction began before the design had been finalized. This is a part of a design-while-you-build model employed by both DOE and Bechtel. As a result the high-level nuclear waste remains in the leaking underground tanks, while construction plans are redesigned.

The Heart of the Northwest report and the released internal documents show that Bechtel and DOE have both overlooked safety violations in order to meet deadlines. In one instance, DOE and Bechtel were both aware that the plans for a vessel which would contain the high-level liquid waste during the vitrification process were flawed, but allowed construction to go forward. An employee later stated it was "dumb luck" that this defective vessel was discovered.

The GAP press release states that the installation of the defective vessel was "the result of BechtelÕs rush to receive a $15 million bonus for meeting a deadline, coupled with an effective lack of oversight by the DOE." A few months later, DOE paid Bechtel $11 million for taking steps to combat itÕs own negligence.

Speaking of BechtelÕs performance in constructing the Vitrification Plant, GAP Nuclear Oversight Director Tom Carpenter said, "Safety and responsible design took a back seat to production schedules, and workers were intimidated into not speaking up about important safety issues at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant."

Bechtel, along with the University of California, has been awarded the management contact for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), in New Mexico. The new contract will go into effect on June 1st.

Managing LANL, Bechtel would oversee the construction of the up to $955 million Chemical and Metallurgy Research Building Replacement (CMRR). This facility would support current and future nuclear weapons activities at LANL and throughout the DOE complex.

Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "We are concerned that Bechtel will cut corners and risk safety while building the CMRR just as it has at Hanford. The facility itself is enough of a safety risk, and if we couple these problems with a design-as-you-build approach, the impact to our environment and our health will be devastating."

Back to News Index