A huge $12 billion complex to turn highly radioactive sludges into benign glass is the biggest project yet to clean up the radioactive wastes of Hanford nuclear reservation next to the Tri-Cities. But conflicting forces raise the question of whether the project is being done safely.
Two major considerations have been tugging the project in opposite directions — getting the project done on time versus making sure it will work safely. The people in charge of the project contend both concerns are being taken care of simultaneously. But internal critics, working for the same federal agency and same project contractor, say design problems are being deliberately and unsafely ignored to keep the project on schedule.
Since Hanford's cleanup efforts began in 1989, this tension has existed. The site frequently receives criticism for dawdling on cleanup; and the site frequently receives criticism for cutting corners in trying to keep to the latest schedule for the often-delayed cleanup.
Another factor may be in play. Hanford's critics point to the regular turnover in Hanford's top leaders in Richland and in Washington D.C. They argue that a top official might spend two or three years on a project and move elsewhere, just long enough to record doing good things on a resume without having to live with whether the glassification project will work as advertised when it goes online in 2019.
Hanford's master plan is to build a $12.3 billion complex to mix those wastes with liquid glass to create glass cylinders capable of holding in the radioactivity for 10,000 years. This troubled glassification project has a history of delays and cost increases. The price tag of $4 billion in 2002 grew $12.3 billion by early 2006 and has stayed steady since. The original start-up date of 1999 has been delayed to 2007, then to 2011 and now to 2019.
"Everyone is worried in the moment about their careers and jobs — and 2019 (when the glassification plant becomes active) is nine years away. Whoever you are talking to today, chances are they won't be there two years from now," said Tom Carpenter, director of Seattle-based watchdog organization Hanford Challenge in a late 2010 interview.
"It's the game of deny and delay," said Walt Tamosaitis, a veteran Hanford engineering team leader who used to be in charge of making sure a key component of the glassification plant would work as planned. The deadline to fix design problems in that key component, a pretreatment plant to prepares wastes for glassification, was June 30, 2010. the U.S. Department of Energy was supposed to pay Bechtel National Inc. and its lead subcontractor URS Corp. $5 million for meeting that deadline. At that time, DOE, Bechtel and URS agreed that the deadline was met, justifying the $5 million payment.
But in the months leading up to the deadline, Tamosaitis argued that the engineering problems were not adequately addressed. He still contends they have not been fixed. And on July 2, 2010, without warning, URS transferred Tamosaitis to a minor procurement job. Tamosaitis has filed a lawsuit in Benton County Superior Court against Bechtel and URS, alleging that he was transferred because he was raising legitimate concerns that would have ensured the June 30, 2010 would not be met. DOE and Bechtel say he was routinely transferred because his team's work was done.
Tamosaitis' lawsuit alleged that Russo and William Gay, URS's assistant manager for the glassification project, pushed hard to get an issue around the plant's mixing of the wastes resolved by June 30, 2010 in order to get the $5 million award fee. Tamosaitis charged that the pair pushed for weakening the standards which the mixing segment had to meet. Tamosaitis' lawsuit alleged that between February and June 2010, Gay repeatedly mentioned how not meeting the June 30 deadline could hurt careers and compensation. The lawsuit said: "On one or more occasions, Gay stated, 'If (the mixing issue ) doesn't close, I'll be selling Amway in Tijuana.' "
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