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Nuclear Disaster in the US: How Bechtel Is Botching the World's Costliest Environmental Cleanup

Department of Energy scientists are alleging catastrophic mismanagement of massive cleanup efforts at Hanford, the former nuclear weapons outpost.

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These flawed plans flew under the radar because the DOE does not have enough staff to thoroughly review every design piece put forth by Bechtel, says Alexander. As a result, expensive mistakes like these could occur again. The lack of key staff to oversee Bechtel's work continues to plague the WTP project to this day.

The concerns of the GAO, the DNFSB, and Alexander all point to a flawed relationship between the DOE and Bechtel, which is both the design and construction authority on WTP. Once operable, the plant will turn the millions of gallons of radioactive sediment currently in the site's waste tanks into glass rods by combining the toxic gunk with glass-forming material at a blistering 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit—a process called vitrification. The rods will then be shipped to an offsite location to be stored indefinitely.

Bechtel's contract is what is known in contractor parlance as "cost and schedule performance based." Such contracts, standard in the defense world, reward contractors like Bechtel for "meeting milestones" within their proposed budget—in some instances, even if plans and construction turn out to be critically flawed. Despite certain mistakes, including those made during the first three years of building the WTP with seismic deficiencies, Bechtel boasted in 2004 that they had received 100 percent of the available milestone fees available to the company through their Hanford contract with DOE.

The DOE is tasked with overseeing the project and signing off on their recommended procedures, but Alexander argues that the agency is incapable of proper oversight. "In the past 45 years, about 400,000 people . . . have been irradiated [because of the Mayak disaster]," reflects Alexander. "It's quite possible that a similar accident could happen here. That's why it is so important that we get the Hanford cleanup facilities up and running properly, as soon as possible."

 

There is something ominous about Hanford, and it's not just the radioactivity.

The Wanapum Tribe, which survived here for centuries, feasting on the once-mighty Columbia River salmon runs, was evicted less than 70 years ago by the federal government so the feds could manufacture fuel for the A-bomb. It was certainly a marvelous scientific achievement when the first plutonium rolled out of Hanford's B Reactor, which is now just one of the many structures that haunt this dry landscape. But cleaning up Hanford's aftermath may prove even more of an accomplishment than it took to create the nuclear reservation in the first place.

Richland, population 48,000, is the city closest to Hanford. Local bars on the weekends overflow with Hanford contractors, and the cash they put down for shots and rounds of cold beer is abundant. The local watering hole, aptly named the Atomic Ale Brewpub, is decorated with Hanford artifacts and memorabilia, and serves beer like Plutonium Porter and Jim's Radioactive Rye. Richland High School's mascot is the Bombers. Despite its toxicity, locals have evidently embraced Richland's nuclear lore.

Richland's economy has long been sustained by the nuclear industry. Before the current cleanup of Hanford began to bring money into the community, the development of nuclear technologies ruled the town for decades. Just outside a more upscale neighborhood is a sprawling industrial park that serves as the district office for Hanford contractors and DOE employees. Without Hanford contracts employing thousands, Richland certainly would be struggling.

During the Cold War, while Hanford was operating at full capacity, Richland received the brunt of the site's radioactive pollution. As plutonium production reached its peak in the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, plant operators at Hanford were told to ignore wind patterns, and released toxic debris into the air throughout the day. As a result, the cities of Richland, Pasco, Kennewick, and Benton City all exceeded acceptable levels of radioactive contamination.

 
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