Design of Hanford cleanup questioned

A new memorandum from the U.S. Department of Energy raises the possibility that the government may have to switch contractors for designing a key plant.
Crosscut archive image.

Part of the Hanford site where a glassification, or vitrification, plant is being constructed

A new memorandum from the U.S. Department of Energy raises the possibility that the government may have to switch contractors for designing a key plant.

A U.S. Department of Energy memo suggests putting a new contractor in charge of the design for a critical part of the nuclear clean-up at Hanford.

The recent memo cites a series of reasons for an erosion of confidence in the design work by the contractor in charge of building a radioactive waste glassification plant at Hanford. Another independent contractor should be put in charge on designing the plant and verifying that the designs work, argued an Aug. 23 memo from Gary Brunson, DOE's engineering division dirictor for the project, to his superiors in DOE.

"The role of the (glassification plant's) design authority should be immediately removed" from Bechtel National, the corporation in charge of designing and building the plant, Brunson wrote.

He wrote that much of the designs for two of the plant's three major operations are not complying with the appropriate specifications and regulations. "The number and significance of these issues indicate that Bechtel National Inc. is not competent to complete their role as the design authority for the (glassfication project), and it is questionable that (Bechtel) can provide a contract-compliant design as design agent," Brunson wrote.

Hanford is arguably the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere. And its biggest problem is 177 huge underground tanks holding 53 million gallons of highly radioactive fluids and sludges. Sixty-seven of 149 single-shell tanks are suspected of leaking more than 1 million gallons into the soil already. Hanford is exploring whether the the first leak has shown up in the inner shell of one of the 28 double-shell tanks.

Hanford is designing and building a $13 billion plant to convert the majority — but not all — of those wastes into a benign glass between 2019 and 2048. DOE has not settled yet on how to deal with the remaining wastes.

This project has already seen several significant delays and budget increases. Meanwhile, some middle and upper level contractor managers have voiced concerns about adequate safety designs in the past few years, and have alleged retaliation for pushing those qualms.

The matters are complicated by the fact that once the plant begins glassification, the interiors of the main buildings will be so radioactive that people will not be able to enter them — meaning all repair work would have to be done by remote control.

Brunson's memo identified 34 technical instances or issues in which Bechtel provided design solutions that are technically flawed, not viable, unsafe, more costly than other approaches, could not be verified as workable or the best available, or were "determined to be factually incorrect."

Tom Carpenter, director of the watchdog organization Hanford Challenge, said, "This memo details exhaustive and disturbing evidence of why Bechtel should be terminated from this project and subject to an independent investigation.  We already knew of Bechtel’s record of suppressing its own engineers’ concerns and retaliating against whistleblowers, and now we see evidence that exhibits a shocking and inexcusable lack of attention to safety for both workers and the public,”

Hanford Challenge represent glassification subcontractor managers Walt Tamosaitis and Donna Busche in legal actions alleging they were retaliated against for raising concerns, as well as former contractor mid-level manager Shelly Doss, for raising concerns at the 177 tanks, which are not part of Bechtel's responsibilities.

Bechtel spokesman Todd Nelson provided a Tuesday memo from Frank Russo, Bechtel's head of the glassification project, to employees in response to the Aug. 23 DOE memo.

Russo wrote: "We are confident that the critically important plant we are designing and building will operate safely and efficiently, while protecting the public, the environment and the co-located worker. Of that I have no doubt."

He added that "the issues raised in the [Aug. 23 DOE] memo are not new and have been addressed in concert with DOE —some as long as a decade ago. BNI and DOE have jointly addressed and resolved issues throughout the course of the Project, and the solutions have been validated by hundreds of independent experts and external review teams. We know there are still issues to be addressed."

Nelson declined to comment on whether Bechtel would combat any potential DOE effort to switch the design control to another contractor.

DOE spokeswoman Carrie Meyer said the DOE managers in charge of the glassification project are reviewing Brunson's memo and recommendations. She declined to elaborate, but did provide a written statement, saying that the Department of Energy: 

takes seriously its role overseeing the safe design and delivery of the waste treatment plant, and is continuing to work with Bechtel to address the ongoing technical issues. Even as we work together to pursue solutions, however, the department continues to be frustrated with the lack of progress. Addressing these challenges effectively will require both additional work by the contractor, as well as improved oversight by the department. It's also important to note that the successful completion of this important project depends on employees continuing to be able to freely raise concerns.

Brunson's memo covered numerous technical matters. A few of his concerns included:

  • Bechtel not having a good plan for dealing with safety and operational concerns in the tanks in a pretreatment building that would mix the wastes into forms that can be glassified.
  • Unresolved matters in dealing with potential pinholes leaks that could send potentially "fatal concentrations (of gases) in a matter of seconds into an area occupied by people." Another unresolved matter is the possibility of a pinhole leak in another part of the complex sending condensed radioactive gases as fluids to machinery in a non-radioactive part of the plant. 
  • Bechtel using only liquids to test some mixing tanks where the wastes will have the consistency of ketchup.
  • Bechtel inadequately tackling the likelihood of corrosion in buried pipes. DOE is unhappy with Bechtel's approach to some other corrosion issues. 
  • Questions about the composition of simulated wastes used in some tests. 

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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