New doubts about Hanford tanks' safety

A new federal report finds problems with the welding on tanks holding radioactive wastes.
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A Department of Energy warning sign at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

A new federal report finds problems with the welding on tanks holding radioactive wastes.

A leading Hanford contractor cannot prove that some welds will remain secure in tanks inside what will be the most radioactive buildings on the site, according to a federal Inspector General report released Monday.

The same report noted that contractor Bechtel Hanford was paid $15 million as an award fee for some of the questioned tasks — money that the Inspector General (IG) contended the U.S. Department of Energy has not been aggressive in getting back after finding the work was substandard.

Some of the defective quality control work has been known for at least six years.

In fact, some  problems outlined in the federal IG report are the same ones noted in a 60 Minutes television report on Hanford that aired in 2006.

The problem is that some records cannot be located that confirm that proper reviews and tests were conducted on welds of tanks that will hold and mix highly radioactive fluids and sludges inside two buildings in Hanford's waste glassification complex currently under construction. Those buildings would mix and prepare the sludges and liquid for glassification and would glassify the high-level radioactive wastes.

The problem is not as serious at it sounds, according to Bechtel Hanford, the lead contractor cited in the IG report.

One issue focuses on missing non-destructive testing records — radiographic tests, very similar to x-rays — on 10 welds out of 2,000 in two mixing tanks, said Bechtel spokesman Todd Nelson.

Nelson said: "That's less than half of 1 percent that we couldn't locate. ... That would be good under any other circumstances."

However, the IG report also said that Bechtel — under DOE orders in August 2010 — found that "weld maps" were missing on 17 "vessels," meaning tanks or pipe systems provided by one subcontractor. A weld map is a diagram that maps out weld seams, the welder's identity, and dates of quality control checks.

The IG also found problems withe the qualifications and record-keeping of some Bechtel quality control representatives stationed with the subcontractors handling the welding projects.

"You can't assume those procedures were followed if you don't have the records," said Tom Carpenter, an attorney with Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog organization.

The Hanford nuclear reservation is the Western Hemisphere's  most radiologically and chemically contaminated chunk of land, holding massive amounts of nuclear wastes left over from producing plutonium for atomic bombs. The site's  biggest problem is 177 underground leak-prone tanks holding 53 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes. Hanford's master plan is to build a $13 billion complex to convert much but not all of those 53 millions of waste into benign glass to store for 10,000 years at a site yet to be determined.

The interiors of the huge glassification buildings will become so radioactive that not even people in protective gear will be able to go into them after the complex starts glassifying. The equipment-filled super-radioactive chambers in those buildings are called "black cells."  Glassification is supposed to begin in 2019, assuming construction and testing unfold on schedule.

This project has gone through several budget increases and schedule delays.

The equipment and tanks inside the black cells are supposed to work for 40 years of glassification with little or no maintenance and replacements. Any fix-it work would have to be done by remote control.

"The importance of black cells and hard-to-reach components cannot be overstated. Premature failure of these components could potentially impact safety, contaminate large portions of a multi-billion-dollar facility and interrupt waste processing for an unknown period of time," the IG report said.

So far, 31 tanks have been installed in black cells in two buildings, mostly in the one dubbed the "pretreatment plant" for mixing wastes to be glassified.  The pretreatment plant alone will eventually have 38 mixing tanks.

In June 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy's Inspector General's office received a tip that records could not be found to verity the welds were properly done on some tanks within the black cells. The IG report concluded that the tip was on target: Some tanks and pipe systems  did not meet quality control standards.

"We also found that the (DOE) paid (Bechtel) a $15 million incentive fee for production fo a vessel that was later determined to be defective. Although (DOE) demanded return of the fee, it did not follow up on the matter and the fee was never reimbursed,' the IG reorot said.

Much of the defective work showed up in 2002 to 2005, prior to the 2006 report by 60 Minutes. The defect related to the $15 million fee was found in 2004, the IG report said.

In its written response to the Inspector General, DOE said it and Bechtel modified their contract in 2009 to declare that all previous fee issues were settled. Now DOE and Bechtel have to chew over whether the $15 million fee issue is covered in that 2009 agreement.

DOE wrote: "Over the past few years, the Energy Department has taken action to improve quality assurance and oversight, conducting technical surveillances on the vessels, placing a hold on all future black cell installations until key design activities can be independently reviewed, and directing (Bechtel) to correct the deficiencies and undertake  (a) review to better understand the full scope of the issue."

But to Carpenter, Hanford being hit in 2012 for problems first identified in 2004 "means the Department of Energy is not doing its job when it comes to oversight."

Carpenter and Nelson strongly disagree on whether  Bechtel currently has a good quality control program in place for the vendors doing subcontracting work.

Before the glassification plant goes into operation, any remaining issues with missing quality control records will result in the appropriate subcontractors being summoned to the site and verifying the manufacturing work is up to snuff, Nelson said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8