Why Hanford struggles to meet cleanup goals

An article in the Tri-City Herald titled “Report questions productivity and cost (Plutonium finishing plant) on Sept. 24, 2014, talks about a report from the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General. The report says, in general, that a lack of productivity because of issues with the work planning process and employees that appeared to be less than productive has cost two years of progress and cost of $179 million. The innuendo is that it is an employee (worker) and work planning issue that are the primary issues keeping work from being done. While most organizations have a small group of unproductive workers and work planning can be very complex, the primary issues I would suggest are with management leadership (internal), changing requirements and a DOE headquarters that changes work priority — moves dollars from project to project stopping and starting work — and disrupts workflow by changing contractors every five to 10 years.

For my 40 years at Hanford doing hands-on work for the first 12 years (Bargaining Unit) and then being a part of the leadership team for 28 years, I found that the employees were for the most part world class and highly skilled. Further, when they were part of the planning process and assigned to work with knowledgeable and capable leaders, the work team was motivated, productive and safe.

Too much help: The states of Washington and Oregon, the various DOE headquarter organizations, the Defense Board, Congress, the lobbyists and outside concerned groups of Hanford operations perhaps all had the best of intentions. However, they all are mostly independent from one another and often gave conflicting input and direction. Ignoring any of the input could bring work to a halt because of political pressure and the DOE/contractor needed to assure all input was taken seriously to assure worker protection as well as protect the environment and the public.

Changing of priorities: The Hanford budget is decided by Congress, and dollar allocations are based on site priorities but are subject to change — based on political pressure or real need. Priorities are recommended by the site DOE based on input from the contractor and others.

DOE headquarters was most often the one that changed the priority/schedules and kept work from getting completed by taking or delaying funding. The site would spend millions of dollars preparing to perform an operation or cleanup activity, then they would receive shutdown notice to a ready-to-go project, causing layoffs, non utilization of specialized tools and wasted training.

There were millions of dollars spent at Hanford that never contributed to clean up. There are buildings that were built and not used. There were detailed project plans prepared that were never used.

One example that stays fresh in my mind was the “Pencil Tank Project” at the Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP). My role was senior director of the plant, leading a large group of dedicated and knowledgeable people from all disciplines. As a team, we had successfully planned the project, took the plan through a contractor’s review process, DOE-RL review and DOE HQ review and were prepared to start the project. Shortly thereafter and prior to beginning the project, we were directed by DOE to stand down. The dollars allocated for the pencil tanks had been redirected to the 100 Area that had become a higher priority.

Results of that decision was indefinite delay of the project and the immediate layoff of hundreds (around 300 people) of specifically trained employees — this project is now being worked eight years later.

The majority of folks I knew and worked with tried to mitigate direction changes, budget cuts or budget re-direction, etc., in order to complete the most work possible and complete it cost effectively and safely but the bottom line was cleanup was delayed on a number of occasions and millions of dollars were spent with no value gained.

DOE evaluates and changes contractors on a specified schedule based on criteria that is meant to save dollars and maximize performance. Contractor changes delay progress for many months and sometimes years as each contractor would bring in its own management team that approached work differently, and all practices, procedures, work products, due diligence, etc., had to be reviewed and rewritten. This process caused delay and usually unsettled the workforce significantly.

The critical role Hanford played in the safety and defense of this nation cannot be denied. The cleanup of the site is of great importance but completion will continually be delayed until decisions are based on a agreed upon priority/schedule and those priorities are allowed to be completed as scheduled.