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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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Originally, WTP was to begin turning Hanford's radioactive materials into glass by 2011, with all vitrification to be completed by 2028. But in 2007 Bechtel pushed up their original cost estimates to $12.2 billion and their deadlines to start the vitrification process to 2019. Even if they meet this goal, the job will not be finished until 2047. The timeline and cost projections have constantly changed because of poor management decisions and a rush to fast-track completion, say critics, as was the case with the redesign of WTP based on its seismic preparedness.

"Bechtel, by all accounts and purposes, has done an absolutely miserable job," says Tom Carpenter, the professorial executive director of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based nonprofit watchdog group that keeps a close eye on all things Hanford. "They [the DOE] simply don't have enough [personnel] to deal with all the technical challenges, so Bechtel is getting away with whatever they want out there."

In fact, Bechtel has hundreds of engineers and scientists on the project, compared to less than a dozen for the DOE at Hanford.

"There are only a few [technical staff] in the Engineering Division," Alexander says. "And there are about seven of us in the Nuclear Safety Division where I work."

Furthermore, an internal DOE document published in August by the Construction Project Review (CPR) states that the current $12.2 billion estimate, which increased in 2007 after the DOE revised their WTP goals, is likely to climb yet again. "Funding uncertainty is the major project risk," the document notes. These increases, says Carpenter, are directly related to the DOE's inability to manage Bechtel.

Rick McNulty, who has worked at Hanford for 17 years and currently holds the position of Organizational Property Management Officer, adds that running out of money is but one of many risks. On August 4, McNulty—also a lawyer and president of Local 788 of the American Federation of Government Employees, largely made up of Hanford scientists and engineers—requested a dual stop-work order to Bechtel and the DOE to force them to halt immediately the welding of tops on so-called "non-Newtonian vessels" at WTP. These five large containers hold "pulse jet mixers" designed to mix radioactive waste within the vessels when the plant becomes operable. Alexander explains that if these materials cannot stay consistently mixed, WTP will not be able to turn the radioactive waste into glass rods.

McNulty is concerned that Bechtel and DOE management are ignoring sound science, moving forward with a project that has failed small-scale testing on numerous occasions. These tests have shown that solids end up accumulating into small piles, causing the mixers to malfunction. The substances that build up during the mixing process, these studies note, are far more dense and cohesive than originally thought. Consequently, the mixers will likely fail. If these small-scale studies are correct, and the pulse jet mixers start mixing waste, this could cause a radioactive accident.

Perhaps even more frightening, as Alexander points out, is that these same tests show that erosion will likely occur in the so-called "black cells"—the areas around the vessels that house the pulse jet mixers. These areas will become off-limits to maintenance crews once the vessels begin to operate.

"[A] significant risk [is] that the vessel bottoms could be eroded through," says Alexander. "If the [pulse jet mixers] erode the vessel floor, then the [radioactive] contents of the vessel will drain into the black cell that they are entombed in. Because there is no access for men or equipment into black cells, there is no way of providing maintenance within them. The black cell itself would likely have to be abandoned."

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