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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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Like Alexander, McNulty is worried that there will be no turning back once the vessels become operable because the radioactivity within them will be too high for workers to enter the black cells—meaning that all mechanisms' interiors, from the vessels to the piping, will have to last the lifetime of the machine. Any malfunction of any part would end the vessel operation altogether, creating a potentially deadly nuclear accident.

"We're talking about dealing with nuclear waste here, so we have to make sure everything is functioning properly," adds McNulty. "This whole thing will be shot if these well heads are sealed with a faulty design inside. We need this thing to work; it's not worth rushing."

McNulty's complaint and subsequent request to halt construction came as a result of the aforementioned small-scale studies conducted by Alexander. In an internal "differing opinion" report circulated among DOE management and contractor staff, which challenged Bechtel's notion that the pulse jet mixers would work, Alexander wrote in June 2011: "The Contractor Reports [which are submitted to DOE for review] are neither conservative nor do they provide a realistic portrayal of vessel physics and therefore there is no justification for continued design, procurement, and installation. Contractor Decision Papers are not technically sound and therefore do not Support a Decision to Weld Heads . . . The Design is not Licensable and management should STOP WORK."

 

Alexander's tests of the pulse jet mixer design plans showed that the model was faulty, yet his pleas to stop construction have gone unheeded by his DOE Project Director, Dale Knutson. In early August, the DOE announced that it was moving forward with welding the tops on the vessels, much to Alexander's dismay.

"We took Dr. Alexander's report into consideration and determined there was no imminent risk to safety if the heads were welded on [the non-Newtonian vessels]," says DOE spokesperson Carrie Meyer. "In the end we looked at the bottom line of the project, and it was a business decision to move forward."

In an internal e-mail obtained by  Seattle Weekly, dated August 4, Alexander addressed his concerns directly to the DOE's Chief of Nuclear Safety, Richard Lagdon, writing: "Unfortunately the Decision to Weld the Non-Newtonian Vessels was made a day too soon. Based on the testing yesterday evening and the recent testing results it is clear that the Decision to Weld will require rework and place unacceptable liability upon the government . . . I was the only scientist present to observe these tests. I guess the project doesn't really care about the test results. Testing over the last two weeks demonstrates that we are now at the point where a very expensive contingency option will have to be exercised. This involves either the implementation of design and fabrication of a new vessel or significant modification of the existing vessel. Either option will be extremely costly . . . This could have been avoided if the DOE technical staff recommendations and those of the DNFSB (among numerous others) had been fairly considered."

On September 1, Knutson and Bechtel WTP Project Director Russo released a joint statement asserting they would sidestep further small-scale testing and instead conduct large-scale analysis in the future, once the units are sealed with the pulse jet mixers inside. "Testing is performed to validate the safety and quality of design and construction," Russo said. "We are confident, based on the results of our small-scale testing, that the mixing design of the vessels meets the safety design basis."

"It's a classic case of management overriding technical staff," says McNulty, who speaks from years of experience at Hanford. "The DOE is in a state of absolute denial about this whole thing. They need to rein [Russo] in. They can't allow him to continue to misrepresent all the internal studies that show [the pulse jet mixers] are simply not going to work."

 
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