By Peter Eisler, USA TODAY
The company hired to clean up the government’s biggest radioactive mess should be removed from key aspects of the project because it made critical errors designing a massive plant to treat the waste, according to an internal Energy Department memo.
- H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
A fence surrounds B Reactor, the first large-scale nuclear reactor, at the Hanford site. Shut down in 1968, Hanford’s Reactor B made plutonium for the first atomic bomb ever detonated.
The memo details 34 technical problems attributed to Bechtel National, which designed and built the plant to stabilize and contain 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from a half-century of nuclear weapons production at the Hanford Site in central Washington. A USA TODAY investigation this year highlighted technical problems with the project.
“The behavior and performance of Bechtel engineering places unnecessarily high risk that the (plant) design will not be effectively completed,” says the memo by Gary Brunson, the Energy Department official overseeing engineering for the project.
The first-of-its-kind plant was supposed to begin operating last year and much of the construction is complete, but technical problems have delayed its start-up until at least 2019. The project’s $12.3 billion price tag, which has tripled since it launched more than a decade ago, is likely to grow substantially as a result. A new cost estimate is expected next month.
Brunson’s Aug. 23 memo, addressed to top Energy officials, suggests that Bechtel be relieved of design responsibility for the project, leaving it responsible mainly for construction work.
The plant’s technical problems “demonstrate consistent non-compliance … between design of and realization of a safe operating facility,” the memo says. “The number and significance of these issues indicate that Bechtel National Inc. is not competent to complete their role.”