Hanford nuclear cleanup slow, workers frustrated

The government’s multi-billion-dollar effort to clean up Hanford, the nation’s largest former nuclear-weapons site, has become its own dysfunctional mess, critics say.

For more than two decades, the government has planned and worked to dispose of 56 million gallons of nuclear and chemical waste in underground, leak-prone tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

But progress has been slow, the budget is rising by billions of dollars and a long-running technical dispute has sown ill will among some of the project’s senior engineering staff, the Energy Department and its lead contractors on the vitrification plant, where waste will be treated for disposal.

The waste is a legacy of the Cold War, when the site housed nuclear reactors churning out enough radioactive plutonium for thousands of atomic bombs. To clean up the mess, the Department of Energy started building the vitrification plant 12 years ago to encase the nuclear leftovers in stable glass for disposal.

Today construction of the plant is only two-thirds complete, after billions of dollars in spending.

Technical personnel have expressed concerns about the plant’s ability to operate safely and efficiently, and some of them say the government and its contractor have tried to discredit them, and in some cases have harassed and punished them.

There’s an urgency to treating the waste before more of it leaks from aging underground tanks, making its way toward groundwater and then slowly toward the Columbia River.

Some lawmakers say Hanford has been an early test of whether Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, previously a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can turn the problem-plagued Energy Department around through improved scientific rigor and better management of its faltering, costly projects. They’ve accused his aides of standing by while a well-known whistleblower was dismissed last month.

The Hanford project is one of a half-dozen or so uncompleted DOE construction efforts that the Government Accountability Office said earlier this year “continue to experience significant cost increases and schedule delays,” including a plutonium disposal facility at Savannah River, S.C., and a uranium storage facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that are each billions of dollars over their initial budgets.

Meanwhile, DOE officials are considering spending an additional $2 billion to $3 billion to help the Hanford plant safely process the waste. Doing so might delay the cleanup’s completion for years, the GAO estimated in December.

In an Oct. 9 letter, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., demanded that Moniz take new steps to ensure that the project’s technical experts are well-treated. Four organizations have reviewed their complaints, he said, and “all have agreed that the project is deeply troubled, and all have affirmed the underlying technical problems.”

Last week, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said at a confirmation hearing for the DOE’s general counsel that he worried “the message is out departmentwide that when you speak truth to power and come forward and lay out what your concerns are, you face these kinds of (retaliation) problems.” If that’s true, he said, “I think it’s going to be very detrimental to the safety agenda.”

A troubled past

Government officials and environmental activists agree that Hanford needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible. But the timetable keeps slipping: Thirteen years ago the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington agreed to start turning the waste into glass by 2011.

In 2010, the deadline was extended to 2019, with a completion date of 2047. Moniz announced last month that the agency is likely to miss the project deadlines to start and commission the plant. Meanwhile, the estimated cost of the plant ballooned from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $13.4 billion in 2012, according to the GAO, with just some of the cost increase due to the plant’s capabilities being expanded.

On Sept. 30, the DOE’s inspector general, Gregory Friedman, issued an audit that said Bechtel, the project’s prime contractor, had repeatedly changed the design of plant equipment without a proper safety review, a problem Friedman called “systemic.” The DOE’s Office of Environmental Management responded that Bechtel has begun addressing these shortcomings, and it promised to monitor the company’s actions.

The report came 13 months after Gary Brunson, then the DOE’s plant engineering division director, told superiors in a memo that Bechtel had made at least 34 technical decisions that were incorrect, infeasible, unverified, unsafe or too costly, according to a copy. Frank Russo, Bechtel’s project director for the plant at the time, responded that the issues weren’t new and had all been addressed in concert with the department.

In addition to the cost increases, construction delays and critical reports, employees and independent agencies have said the DOE and contractor officials who are overseeing the project created a workplace climate that discourages employees from raising technical and safety concerns.

They say project supervisors have relentlessly pushed over the past two years to shorten testing and “close” technical issues by deadlines, meeting their benchmarks to gain financial rewards, even though the problems aren’t fully resolved. A DOE spokeswoman, Carrie Meyer, responded that “closing” a problem means only that a decision has been made to move forward with a credible solution.

One whistleblower’s experience

The most prominent of the plant’s whistleblowers is Walter Tamosaitis, the project’s former research and technical manager for URS, the prime subcontractor to Bechtel.

Tamosaitis’ troubles began after a 2010 meeting with Bechtel and URS managers at which he turned over a list of technical issues that he said could affect plant safety, including continuing uncertainties about how the wastes should be kept mixed to stop them from settling into a critical mass and causing a chain reaction.

Two days later, on July 2, URS, acting under orders from a Bechtel executive, pulled Tamosaitis from the project, according to a federal court complaint he filed in November 2011. He was reassigned to an available office, which was in the basement, and he did no further work that required major supervisory responsibilities.

The complaint includes an email written by Bechtel’s Russo to the company’s president on June 30, 2010, that “a clear way to kill momentum within the project and with Congress re funding would be to declare m3 (the mixing issue) as not complete.” The next day, he wrote another email saying, “Declare failure and high probability that the $50 mil goes away.”

Bechtel engineering managers said they’d consider improving the design once the issue was closed, Tamosaitis said in his legal complaint. “They were trying to justify their design,” he said, “but their design led to safety issues.”

Tamosaitis has filed three lawsuits. All were dismissed before trial and are on appeal.

Similar disputes occurred repeatedly that spring, as management officials struggled to meet their deadline. On June 16, Perry Meyer, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientist at the time who now works for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, wrote an email for the record relating “three potential threats I have heard” from managers toward technical staff.

Tamosaitis’ federal court complaint includes emails that show Russo ordered his removal July 1 after communicating with Dale Knutson, the DOE’s project director of the plant at the time. “Use this message as you see fit to accelerate staffing changes,” Knutson said in an email to Russo.

Russo, after receiving Knutson’s email, sent a message to URS plant manager William Gay that said, “Walt is killing us. Get him in your corporate office tomorrow.” Gay responded, “He will be gone tomorrow.”

Bechtel and URS have denied allegations of retaliation, saying Tamosaitis was already scheduled to be reassigned because his job was coming to an end. Tamosaitis had prior performance issues and he sent an inappropriate and inaccurate email to project consultants, Bechtel has said in court filings.

But after Tamosaitis complained to the DOE’s nuclear safety board, it affirmed in a June 2011 report that his removal “sent a strong message to other . . . project employees that individuals who question current practices . . . are not considered team players and will be dealt with harshly.”

Reassignment, then dismissal

After Tamosaitis’ forced departure from the plant, he was assigned to URS’s main office in downtown Richland, Wash. Then last month, URS managers told Tamosaitis _ a 44-year company veteran with a Ph.D. in engineering _ to clean off his desk and leave that day.

URS required _ as a condition for all employees who receive severance pay _ that he give up the lawsuit he’d filed against the company. He refused to sign the release.

In an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Tamosaitis, 66, said the layoff was “clearly retaliatory.” He said he was particularly surprised by URS’s decision because he’d met with Moniz three months earlier to discuss his concerns about the plant’s design and safety culture. Moniz had promised at his April confirmation hearing to meet whistleblowers at Hanford.

Tamosaitis also had been encouraged by a memo Moniz sent to department heads in September that said the DOE must “foster a safety-conscious work environment” that does not “deter, discourage or penalize employees for the timely identification of safety, health, environmental, quality or security issues.”

After Tamosaitis’ dismissal, Markey and Wyden each sent letters to Moniz that say it appears little has changed. Tamosaitis’ “termination within days of your pledge can only be seen as perpetuating a culture that would plunge DOE employees and contractors who dare to raise safety issues into the deep freeze,” Wyden wrote in his Oct. 9 letter.

DOE officials didn’t respond to requests by the Center for Public Integrity for comment about the letters or the dismissal. Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said Moniz hadn’t replied to the senator’s letter.

URS spokeswoman Pamela Blum said in an emailed statement that, “While we will not comment on specific employee matters, in recent months URS has reduced employment levels in our federal sector business due to budgetary constraints.” The company, she wrote, “encourages its employees to raise concerns about safety.” She also said URS asked all laid-off employees to sign severance agreements absolving the company from legal claims.

Other technical managers also have alleged retaliation for expressing safety concerns. Donna Busche, a URS employee and the plant’s manager of environmental and nuclear safety, sued Bechtel and URS in February claiming that the companies treated her as a “roadblock to meeting deadlines.” URS and Bechtel officials excluded her from meetings and belittled her authority, she alleged. The companies deny it.

Busche said her troubles escalated after she questioned the DOE’s judgment at an Oct. 7, 2010, safety board hearing about how much radiation might escape in the event of an accident at the plant. Board officials had expressed concern that the DOE’s calculations may underestimate the threat, but Ines Triay, then the department’s assistant secretary for environmental management, defended them.

When a board member asked Busche whether she supported the DOE’s method, Busche replied, “Short answer, no,” according to a transcript of the hearing. Afterward, Triay told Busche that if her “intent was to piss people off, (she) did a very good job,” according to Busche’s complaint.

Triay, who’s now the executive director of the Applied Research Center at Florida International University, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Tom Carpenter, the executive director of Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit agency in Seattle that’s assisted Hanford whistleblowers, said URS “created the conditions” to lay off Tamosaitis. “He was turned into a symbol by them that this is what happens to people who raise concerns,” Carpenter said. “It’ll be a cold day indeed when someone tries to follow in his footsteps.”

Cleaning up the mess

In August 2010, the department announced that the mixing issues were closed. Partially as a result, Bechtel and URS received more than $4 million in bonus funds.

But problems persisted. In 2011, DOE scientist Don Alexander expressed new concerns that the mixing vessels could erode and spring leaks. Last year, the department halted construction on key parts of the plant as it worked to resolve technical problems, including ensuring that the wastes will be adequately mixed. Alexander said DOE and contract officials were planning full-scale tests of mixing vessels.

Bechtel spokesman Jason Bohne said in a statement that the company’s “focus remains on safely designing and building the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant to the highest nuclear safety standards. We remain committed to working with DOE to achieve the permanent solution for Hanford’s aging tank waste.”

In a Sept. 24 report, Secretary Moniz told Washington state officials that officials want to start encasing some low-level waste in glass while resolving other problems with the treatment of high-level waste.

Tamosaitis says he’s sorting through his papers and figuring out what to do next. “I want an environment where the foot soldiers can raise issues without fear they’re going to be put in a basement office for 16 months and then laid off,” he said. “This issue is a heck of a lot bigger than me.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for the Government Accountability Office.