Saturday, 22 November 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

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

Wednesday, 02 November 2011 04:38 By Joshua Frank, AlterNet | News Analysis

Razor wire surrounds Hanford’s makeshift borders while tattered signs warn of potential contamination and fines for those daring enough to trespass. This vast stretch of eastern Washington, covering more than 580 square miles of high desert plains, is rural Washington at its most serene. But it’s inaccessible for good reason: It is, by all accounts, a nuclear wasteland.

During World War II, the Hanford Reservation was chosen by the federal government as a location to carry out the covert Manhattan Project. Later, plutonium produced at Hanford provided fuel for the "Fat Man" bomb that President Truman ordered to be dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, killing upward of 80,000 Japanese. In all, nine nuclear reactors were built at Hanford, the last of which ceased operation in 1987. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now estimates that as a result of the nuclear work done at Hanford's facilities, 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste were produced and more than 130 million cubic yards of soil ultimately were contaminated.

During Hanford's lifespan, 475 billion gallons of radioactive wastewater were released into the ground. Radioactive isotopes have made their way up the food chain in the Hanford ecosystem at an alarming rate. Coyote excrement frequently lights up Geigers, as these scavengers feast on varmints that live beneath the earth's surface. Deer also have nuclear radiation accumulating in their bones as a result of consuming local shrubbery and water. The EPA has deemed Hanford the most contaminated site in North America—a jarring fact, as the Columbia River, lifeline for more than 10,000 farmers and dozens of commercial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, surges along Hanford's eastern boundary.

In 1989 Hanford changed from a nuclear-weapons outpost to a massive cleanup project. Since then, the site has become the largest and most costly environmental remediation the world has ever seen.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the agency that oversees energy and the safety of handling nuclear material, supervises the cleanup efforts, which are currently undertaken by Bechtel National Inc.—infamous for its mishandling of Iraq reconstruction efforts—and a handful of other companies like URS and CH2M HILL. But despite more than two decades of cleanup efforts and billions of dollars spent, only a tiny fraction of Hanford's radioactivity has been safely contained. And the final costs for the Hanford cleanup process could exceed $120 billion—higher even than the $100 billion tab for the International Space Station.

Now outrage is brewing at Hanford. Some prominent employees working on the project are blowing the whistle over what they believe to be dismissals of internal scientific assessments, as well as alleged abuses of managerial power that have been called to the attention of the Obama Administration, to no avail. These staffers point to institutional failures within the DOE and Bechtel as toxic as the nuclear waste they're tasked to clean up, asserting that the DOE lacks critical experts on staff to oversee the project and Bechtel rushed through shoddy design plans in order to pocket some quick cash. The consequences are not only jeopardizing safety and putting the project at risk of failure, they are also likely to cost taxpayers even more money should fatally flawed construction ultimately require a complete overhaul.

"We need alternatives to the current plan right now," Dr. Donald Alexander, a high-level DOE physical chemist working at Hanford, says in distress. "We need a different design and more options on the table. This appears to be a hard thing for [DOE and Bechtel] management to accept. They have spent years of time and money on a bad design, and it will delay the project even more."

 

It's the tail end of summer, and Alexander is about to head off on a weekend camping trip with his son in northern Idaho. While his spirits are high at the thought of his upcoming retreat, Alexander somberly assesses the Hanford situation from his vantage point.

"One of the main problems at Hanford is that DOE is understaffed and overtasked," Alexander explains. "As such, we cannot conduct in-depth reviews of each of the individual systems in the facilities. Therefore there is a high likelihood that several systems will be found to be inoperable or not perform to expectations."

Alexander knows his nuclear disasters well, as he led one of the DOE's first scientific delegations to Russia's Mayak nuclear facility in 1990. Mayak, one of the largest nuclear production plants in the former Soviet Union, suffered a deadly accident in 1957 when a tank containing nuclear materials exploded. The Mayak facilities are comparable to the plutonium production units built at Hanford, which is considered a "sister facility." Since they are so close in design and makeup, Mayak is often seen as an example of what can go wrong with the production of plutonium and the storage of nuclear waste at Hanford. Alexander's team negotiated the transfer of data collected by the Soviets on the health effects of Mayak's radioactive release, establishing a program that allows Russian and U.S. scientists to share nuclear cleanup technologies and research.

Currently, federal employees at DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C., are evaluating whether Bechtel's construction designs at the site have violated federal law under the Price-Anderson Amendments Act (PAAA). An amendment to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the PAAA governs liability issues for all non-military nuclear-facility construction in the United States, which includes Hanford.

These concerns are triggering other investigations, some of which have yet to be publicized. Last month, the DOE's Office of Health, Safety, and Security headed to Hanford to conduct a follow-up investigation about safety-culture issues. Their findings could be released as soon as the end of the year. This visit comes on the heels of a June investigation by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), an independent organization tasked by the executive branch to oversee public health and safety issues at the DOE's nuclear facilities. In a report addressed to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, DNFSB investigators wrote that "both DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture . . . that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgement, and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns."

After reviewing 30,000 documents and interviewing 45 staffers, the DNFSB reported that those who went against the grain and raised concerns about safety issues associated with construction design "were discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review." In fact, according to the DNFSB, one of these scientists, Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, was actually removed from his position as a result of speaking up about design problems.

It's not just the DNFSB that is concerned with the safety culture and management at Hanford. Seattle Weekly has obtained official documents revealing that the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional arm in charge of investigating matters relating to contractors and other public fund recipients, visited the Hanford site last month. In an outline sent to DOE personnel in advance of their visit, the GAO wrote that it will look into how contractors are addressing concerns over what they call "relatively lax attitudes toward safety procedures," "inadequacies in identifying and addressing safety problems," and a "weak safety culture, including employees' reluctance to report problems." Their findings likely will be made public in early 2012.

This wasn't the first time the GAO investigated DOE contracts with Bechtel. In 2004, the agency released a report critical of the DOE and Bechtel's clean-up plans, warning of faulty design and construction of the Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP), a structure at the heart of the clean-up effort. The WTP building was not designed to withstand a strong earthquake, but only after prodding from the DNFSB did the DOE force Bechtel to go back to the drawing board to ensure the plant could withstand one. As a result, Bechtel's design and cost estimates to finish construction skyrocketed from $4.3 billion to more than $10 billion. And in 2006, GAO released another paper critical of Bechtel's timeline and cost estimates, which seemed to change annually, saying that they have "continuing concerns about the current strategy for going forward on the project."

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.

During a more devastating period, such as the December 1949 "Green Run" when raw uranium fuel was being processed, a winter storm struck the region, causing heavy radioactive deposits to snow down on Richland and other rural farm communities. Samples of radioactivity taken during the Green Run incident were 1,000 times the government's recommended level, potentially impacting tens of thousands of people.

For years, the government kept documentation of potentially lethal amounts of radiation in the area classified. Not until 1986, after public demand mounted, did it release almost 20,000 pages of historical data showing how much nuclear pollution had plagued the entire region, affecting literally millions of people. As a result, a class-action suit was filed in 1991 by 2,400 individuals—"downwinders"— who claimed they had developed thyroid cancer after being exposed to radioactive iodine-131 emissions from Hanford. A jury deadlocked on the issue, which led to a 2005 mistrial. The plaintiffs appealed in 2006, and in 2008 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that downwinders are now allowed to sue the contractors that operated Hanford at the time. In July, 139 of these downwinders settled for a meager $5,683 per victim.

Yet the majority of people affected by Hanford pollution have not received compensation of any kind.

 

Today there are a total of 177 underground storage waste tanks at Hanford, 149 of which are single-shelled and considered leak-prone by the EPA. All together, these holding containers house 53 million gallons of scorching-hot radioactive goop—nearly two-thirds of the country's high-level, defense-related radioactive waste.

Many of these tanks are already leaking, and have been for some time; according to the Washington Department of Ecology's estimate, one million gallons of nuclear waste have already poisoned groundwater as it continues to seep toward the Columbia River. However, it is not only leaks that haunt Hanford's scientists and engineers. The longer the waste stays put, the more dangerous it becomes.

"In the extreme," says Alexander, "this could lead to a serious condition that remains undiscovered until it is too late and another Mayak-scale incident occurs."

Alexander is openly concerned that such an event could release dangerous amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, contaminating nearby towns and destroying much of Washington's vital agricultural economy. And despite Hanford's already seething radioactivity, the DOE is eyeing the site as a potential waste repository for additional radioactive garbage produced from medical procedures, including cancer treatments, as well as waste associated with oil and gas exploration.

Bechtel has held the rights to build WTP since 2000. The plant, like Bechtel's Hanford contract, is gargantuan. The equivalent of constructing two full-scale nuclear power plants, WTP is to one day span 65 acres and include four major nuclear facilities: Pretreatment, Low-Activity Waste Vitrification, High-Level Waste Vitrification, and an Analytical Laboratory. It's currently the largest single construction operation taking place anywhere in the United States. Not only is the proposed WTP immense, it also comes with a staggering price tag of $12.2 billion, funded solely by the public trust, part of which comes out of the annual DOE budget.

Before Bechtel, the DOE's WTP contract was with British Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (BNFL). But in May 2000, after the company had spent more than $14 billion—despite an earlier cost estimate of $7 billion—the DOE ended the contract. Bechtel was then awarded the job through a competitive contract bid, receiving a $4.3 billion deal when it assured the DOE it could do the work for less than British Nuclear Fuel's price.

Since then, however, the company's cost estimates, start dates, and deadlines have changed on numerous occasions. Bechtel has also swapped project presidents on four separate occasions, most recently installing Frank Russo as director in January 2010.

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."

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."

Last fall, the pulse jet mixers were welded inside the non-Newtonian vessels, but the tops were not sealed shut. Despite opposition from Alexander and other scientists, this portion of the project was pushed forward by Bechtel and DOE management. "I raised issues within DOE, but Bechtel was convinced these pulse jet mixers would work," Alexander says. "The result was that Bechtel was able to get DOE management to sign off on welding the mixers within the vessels."

Once the weld heads encapsulate what studies show to be defective pulse jet mixers, years of research and development will be wasted and billions more will have to be spent to fix what could have been prevented, contends McNulty.

Russo would not submit to an interview with Seattle Weekly. Instead, Bechtel spokesperson Suzanne Heaston sent the following statement via e-mail: "Assuming the vessel mixing systems work as designed, welding the heads on now will save taxpayers significant cost and avoid delays in treatment of the waste in the tank farm . . . If further testing associated with the mitigation actions determines that they will not perform adequately and operational controls are not adequate, design changes could be required. The timing of the welding of the heads on the vessels is a management decision to proceed . . . The potential costs of potential rework are less than the known costs of delay."

In other words, even though no small-scale tests have ever shown that the pulse jet mixers will work properly, Bechtel, with the DOE's blessing, will still move forward with welding the heads to the tops of the vessels.

Such illogic mystifies Tamosaitis, a systems engineer who has been employed for more than 40 years by Bechtel subcontractor URS. "So Bechtel charges ahead, welds the heads on [the non-Newtonian vessels], and then waits for the answers that will tell how the tanks need to be changed," he says in response to Bechtel's statement. "What then? Cut the heads off the tanks? Start over building new tanks? Wow. That sounds like a low-cost approach."

In an additional e-mail sent August 2, Alexander writes of how Bechtel management disregarded his early report that their design for the pulse jet mixers was flawed: "In the spring I raised a series of concerns with respect to the performance of the non-Newtonian vessels. Because I raised the issue, Frank Russo directed me to write my issues in a paper over the Easter weekend and deliver the paper on Monday April 5, 2010 . . . As a consequence the [Bechtel] manager labeled my issues as the 'non- Newtonian curve-ball.' Since when are DOE staff supposed to take direction from Contractor management? . . . Mr. Russo also directed Dr. Walter Tamosaitis to gather as many top flight PhDs as possible together to discredit my paper. I requested that my paper receive appropriate peer review but that request was denied. Walt had trouble even assembling a team. Walt knew that my issues were technically correct and he never submitted a counter paper."

Shortly after he refused to counter Alexander's internal paper warning about the problems with the pulse jet mixer design, Tamosaitis blew his own whistle, exposing what he saw as safety failures at WTP and citing concerns that the pulse jet mixer design issues would prohibit the plant from operating correctly. As a result, Tamosaitis says he was removed from the project; Bechtel and URS both deny that they removed Tamosaitis because he raised safety concerns.

"The drive to stay on schedule is putting the whole [WTP] project at risk," Tamosaitis contends. " 'Not on my watch' is a standard mantra among [DOE and Contract] management who like to intimidate naysayers like me. These guys would rather deal with major issues down the road than fix them up front . . . Cost and schedule performance trump sound science time and again."

On March 31, 2010, Tamosaitis e-mailed Bechtel managers Michael K. Robinson and Russo about concerns about pulse jet mixer failures raised by the DOE's Alexander, to which Russo replied, "Please keep this under control. The science is over." In an internal e-mail string dated April 14, 2010, Robinson writes to Russo that he will "just have to keep [Tamosaitis] in line."

"As soon as Russo came on board, the chain of command was altered," Tamosaitis says. "Before Russo, I had to report directly to Bill Gay, a URS employee, but Russo removed Gay from the command chain and [made me communicate] directly to Mike Robinson [of Bechtel]. I think Russo believed it was easier to drive ahead with his cost and schedule push if he didn't have two URS managers directly under him."

 

In an e-mail dated March 31, 2010, Russo updated President Obama appointee Inés Triay on the situation. Triay, who did not return calls seeking comment, served as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management and oversaw the DOE's Hanford work until July, at which time she stepped down.

"It was like herding cats," Russo wrote Triay about a meeting he'd had with senior contract scientists and engineers regarding his quest to stay on schedule. "Scientists . . . were in lock step harmony when we told them the science is ending. They all hated it . . . I will send anyone on my team home if they demonstrate an unwillingness or inability to fulfill my direction."

"Walt is killing us," Russo later e-mailed Bill Gay of URS on July 1, 2010, who though removed from the chain of command still had to sign off on Tamosaitis' removal.

"Get him in your corporate office today."

"He will be gone tomorrow," Gay replied.

"This action [Tamosaitis' removal from the Hanford project] was initiated by Dale Knutson probably not knowing the sensitivity," Gay e-mailed to another employee in response to the decision to get rid of Tamosaitis.

Knutson would not respond to interview requests from Seattle Weekly. However, in a sworn statement sent to the Department of Labor, Knutson denied that he was in any way involved in the decision to demote Tamosaitis.

While no longer working on Hanford and WTP, Tamosaitis is still employed by URS, but is confined to a windowless basement office in Richland, where he says no management has spoken to him in over a year. His daily work routine isn't that of a normal URS scientist, and he is not even sure what official title he presently has. URS has recently shipped him around the country to work on various company projects as a sort of in-house consultant.

Tamosaitis is currently suing Bechtel in Washington state, as well as URS and the DOE at the federal level, over his ousting at Hanford. "It is my opinion that [Dale] Knutson and Frank Russo are in lockstep," he asserts. "Due to the constant managerial turnover [on the WTP project], these guys won't likely be there in a few years, so they'd rather have these problems happen on someone else's clock, even though it is always more expensive to fix something later then to do it right the first time."

Three sources working on the DOE's and Bechtel's Hanford vitrification project tell Seattle Weekly that "the WTP project is in total jeopardy" because of their employers' refusal to address technical and safety concerns raised by staffers like Tamosaitis and Alexander. These sources, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by their employers, believe congressional hearings in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the issue are imminent. They also contend that the project could be temporarily shut down any day due to safety concerns.

If it comes to rebuilding these hundred-million-dollar vessels, the costs will skyrocket. As a result, Hanford Challenge's Carpenter and others note, the entire project could fall apart. That means taxpayers will again have to foot the bill for WTP's redesign and construction, postponing its operation indefinitely.

"Clearly, the management system or 'safety culture' is broken," writes Alexander in an August 2 e-mail to McNulty. "I have been under tremendous stress for more than a year. It seems to me that this is beyond a purely technical issue and is a whistleblower issue."

Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

Joshua Frank

Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist and author of "Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush." He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland." Frank and St. Clair are also the authors of the forthcoming book, "Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism." He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.


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

Wednesday, 02 November 2011 04:38 By Joshua Frank, AlterNet | News Analysis

Razor wire surrounds Hanford’s makeshift borders while tattered signs warn of potential contamination and fines for those daring enough to trespass. This vast stretch of eastern Washington, covering more than 580 square miles of high desert plains, is rural Washington at its most serene. But it’s inaccessible for good reason: It is, by all accounts, a nuclear wasteland.

During World War II, the Hanford Reservation was chosen by the federal government as a location to carry out the covert Manhattan Project. Later, plutonium produced at Hanford provided fuel for the "Fat Man" bomb that President Truman ordered to be dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, killing upward of 80,000 Japanese. In all, nine nuclear reactors were built at Hanford, the last of which ceased operation in 1987. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now estimates that as a result of the nuclear work done at Hanford's facilities, 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste were produced and more than 130 million cubic yards of soil ultimately were contaminated.

During Hanford's lifespan, 475 billion gallons of radioactive wastewater were released into the ground. Radioactive isotopes have made their way up the food chain in the Hanford ecosystem at an alarming rate. Coyote excrement frequently lights up Geigers, as these scavengers feast on varmints that live beneath the earth's surface. Deer also have nuclear radiation accumulating in their bones as a result of consuming local shrubbery and water. The EPA has deemed Hanford the most contaminated site in North America—a jarring fact, as the Columbia River, lifeline for more than 10,000 farmers and dozens of commercial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, surges along Hanford's eastern boundary.

In 1989 Hanford changed from a nuclear-weapons outpost to a massive cleanup project. Since then, the site has become the largest and most costly environmental remediation the world has ever seen.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the agency that oversees energy and the safety of handling nuclear material, supervises the cleanup efforts, which are currently undertaken by Bechtel National Inc.—infamous for its mishandling of Iraq reconstruction efforts—and a handful of other companies like URS and CH2M HILL. But despite more than two decades of cleanup efforts and billions of dollars spent, only a tiny fraction of Hanford's radioactivity has been safely contained. And the final costs for the Hanford cleanup process could exceed $120 billion—higher even than the $100 billion tab for the International Space Station.

Now outrage is brewing at Hanford. Some prominent employees working on the project are blowing the whistle over what they believe to be dismissals of internal scientific assessments, as well as alleged abuses of managerial power that have been called to the attention of the Obama Administration, to no avail. These staffers point to institutional failures within the DOE and Bechtel as toxic as the nuclear waste they're tasked to clean up, asserting that the DOE lacks critical experts on staff to oversee the project and Bechtel rushed through shoddy design plans in order to pocket some quick cash. The consequences are not only jeopardizing safety and putting the project at risk of failure, they are also likely to cost taxpayers even more money should fatally flawed construction ultimately require a complete overhaul.

"We need alternatives to the current plan right now," Dr. Donald Alexander, a high-level DOE physical chemist working at Hanford, says in distress. "We need a different design and more options on the table. This appears to be a hard thing for [DOE and Bechtel] management to accept. They have spent years of time and money on a bad design, and it will delay the project even more."

 

It's the tail end of summer, and Alexander is about to head off on a weekend camping trip with his son in northern Idaho. While his spirits are high at the thought of his upcoming retreat, Alexander somberly assesses the Hanford situation from his vantage point.

"One of the main problems at Hanford is that DOE is understaffed and overtasked," Alexander explains. "As such, we cannot conduct in-depth reviews of each of the individual systems in the facilities. Therefore there is a high likelihood that several systems will be found to be inoperable or not perform to expectations."

Alexander knows his nuclear disasters well, as he led one of the DOE's first scientific delegations to Russia's Mayak nuclear facility in 1990. Mayak, one of the largest nuclear production plants in the former Soviet Union, suffered a deadly accident in 1957 when a tank containing nuclear materials exploded. The Mayak facilities are comparable to the plutonium production units built at Hanford, which is considered a "sister facility." Since they are so close in design and makeup, Mayak is often seen as an example of what can go wrong with the production of plutonium and the storage of nuclear waste at Hanford. Alexander's team negotiated the transfer of data collected by the Soviets on the health effects of Mayak's radioactive release, establishing a program that allows Russian and U.S. scientists to share nuclear cleanup technologies and research.

Currently, federal employees at DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C., are evaluating whether Bechtel's construction designs at the site have violated federal law under the Price-Anderson Amendments Act (PAAA). An amendment to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the PAAA governs liability issues for all non-military nuclear-facility construction in the United States, which includes Hanford.

These concerns are triggering other investigations, some of which have yet to be publicized. Last month, the DOE's Office of Health, Safety, and Security headed to Hanford to conduct a follow-up investigation about safety-culture issues. Their findings could be released as soon as the end of the year. This visit comes on the heels of a June investigation by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), an independent organization tasked by the executive branch to oversee public health and safety issues at the DOE's nuclear facilities. In a report addressed to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, DNFSB investigators wrote that "both DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture . . . that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgement, and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns."

After reviewing 30,000 documents and interviewing 45 staffers, the DNFSB reported that those who went against the grain and raised concerns about safety issues associated with construction design "were discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review." In fact, according to the DNFSB, one of these scientists, Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, was actually removed from his position as a result of speaking up about design problems.

It's not just the DNFSB that is concerned with the safety culture and management at Hanford. Seattle Weekly has obtained official documents revealing that the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional arm in charge of investigating matters relating to contractors and other public fund recipients, visited the Hanford site last month. In an outline sent to DOE personnel in advance of their visit, the GAO wrote that it will look into how contractors are addressing concerns over what they call "relatively lax attitudes toward safety procedures," "inadequacies in identifying and addressing safety problems," and a "weak safety culture, including employees' reluctance to report problems." Their findings likely will be made public in early 2012.

This wasn't the first time the GAO investigated DOE contracts with Bechtel. In 2004, the agency released a report critical of the DOE and Bechtel's clean-up plans, warning of faulty design and construction of the Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP), a structure at the heart of the clean-up effort. The WTP building was not designed to withstand a strong earthquake, but only after prodding from the DNFSB did the DOE force Bechtel to go back to the drawing board to ensure the plant could withstand one. As a result, Bechtel's design and cost estimates to finish construction skyrocketed from $4.3 billion to more than $10 billion. And in 2006, GAO released another paper critical of Bechtel's timeline and cost estimates, which seemed to change annually, saying that they have "continuing concerns about the current strategy for going forward on the project."

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.

During a more devastating period, such as the December 1949 "Green Run" when raw uranium fuel was being processed, a winter storm struck the region, causing heavy radioactive deposits to snow down on Richland and other rural farm communities. Samples of radioactivity taken during the Green Run incident were 1,000 times the government's recommended level, potentially impacting tens of thousands of people.

For years, the government kept documentation of potentially lethal amounts of radiation in the area classified. Not until 1986, after public demand mounted, did it release almost 20,000 pages of historical data showing how much nuclear pollution had plagued the entire region, affecting literally millions of people. As a result, a class-action suit was filed in 1991 by 2,400 individuals—"downwinders"— who claimed they had developed thyroid cancer after being exposed to radioactive iodine-131 emissions from Hanford. A jury deadlocked on the issue, which led to a 2005 mistrial. The plaintiffs appealed in 2006, and in 2008 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that downwinders are now allowed to sue the contractors that operated Hanford at the time. In July, 139 of these downwinders settled for a meager $5,683 per victim.

Yet the majority of people affected by Hanford pollution have not received compensation of any kind.

 

Today there are a total of 177 underground storage waste tanks at Hanford, 149 of which are single-shelled and considered leak-prone by the EPA. All together, these holding containers house 53 million gallons of scorching-hot radioactive goop—nearly two-thirds of the country's high-level, defense-related radioactive waste.

Many of these tanks are already leaking, and have been for some time; according to the Washington Department of Ecology's estimate, one million gallons of nuclear waste have already poisoned groundwater as it continues to seep toward the Columbia River. However, it is not only leaks that haunt Hanford's scientists and engineers. The longer the waste stays put, the more dangerous it becomes.

"In the extreme," says Alexander, "this could lead to a serious condition that remains undiscovered until it is too late and another Mayak-scale incident occurs."

Alexander is openly concerned that such an event could release dangerous amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, contaminating nearby towns and destroying much of Washington's vital agricultural economy. And despite Hanford's already seething radioactivity, the DOE is eyeing the site as a potential waste repository for additional radioactive garbage produced from medical procedures, including cancer treatments, as well as waste associated with oil and gas exploration.

Bechtel has held the rights to build WTP since 2000. The plant, like Bechtel's Hanford contract, is gargantuan. The equivalent of constructing two full-scale nuclear power plants, WTP is to one day span 65 acres and include four major nuclear facilities: Pretreatment, Low-Activity Waste Vitrification, High-Level Waste Vitrification, and an Analytical Laboratory. It's currently the largest single construction operation taking place anywhere in the United States. Not only is the proposed WTP immense, it also comes with a staggering price tag of $12.2 billion, funded solely by the public trust, part of which comes out of the annual DOE budget.

Before Bechtel, the DOE's WTP contract was with British Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (BNFL). But in May 2000, after the company had spent more than $14 billion—despite an earlier cost estimate of $7 billion—the DOE ended the contract. Bechtel was then awarded the job through a competitive contract bid, receiving a $4.3 billion deal when it assured the DOE it could do the work for less than British Nuclear Fuel's price.

Since then, however, the company's cost estimates, start dates, and deadlines have changed on numerous occasions. Bechtel has also swapped project presidents on four separate occasions, most recently installing Frank Russo as director in January 2010.

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."

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."

Last fall, the pulse jet mixers were welded inside the non-Newtonian vessels, but the tops were not sealed shut. Despite opposition from Alexander and other scientists, this portion of the project was pushed forward by Bechtel and DOE management. "I raised issues within DOE, but Bechtel was convinced these pulse jet mixers would work," Alexander says. "The result was that Bechtel was able to get DOE management to sign off on welding the mixers within the vessels."

Once the weld heads encapsulate what studies show to be defective pulse jet mixers, years of research and development will be wasted and billions more will have to be spent to fix what could have been prevented, contends McNulty.

Russo would not submit to an interview with Seattle Weekly. Instead, Bechtel spokesperson Suzanne Heaston sent the following statement via e-mail: "Assuming the vessel mixing systems work as designed, welding the heads on now will save taxpayers significant cost and avoid delays in treatment of the waste in the tank farm . . . If further testing associated with the mitigation actions determines that they will not perform adequately and operational controls are not adequate, design changes could be required. The timing of the welding of the heads on the vessels is a management decision to proceed . . . The potential costs of potential rework are less than the known costs of delay."

In other words, even though no small-scale tests have ever shown that the pulse jet mixers will work properly, Bechtel, with the DOE's blessing, will still move forward with welding the heads to the tops of the vessels.

Such illogic mystifies Tamosaitis, a systems engineer who has been employed for more than 40 years by Bechtel subcontractor URS. "So Bechtel charges ahead, welds the heads on [the non-Newtonian vessels], and then waits for the answers that will tell how the tanks need to be changed," he says in response to Bechtel's statement. "What then? Cut the heads off the tanks? Start over building new tanks? Wow. That sounds like a low-cost approach."

In an additional e-mail sent August 2, Alexander writes of how Bechtel management disregarded his early report that their design for the pulse jet mixers was flawed: "In the spring I raised a series of concerns with respect to the performance of the non-Newtonian vessels. Because I raised the issue, Frank Russo directed me to write my issues in a paper over the Easter weekend and deliver the paper on Monday April 5, 2010 . . . As a consequence the [Bechtel] manager labeled my issues as the 'non- Newtonian curve-ball.' Since when are DOE staff supposed to take direction from Contractor management? . . . Mr. Russo also directed Dr. Walter Tamosaitis to gather as many top flight PhDs as possible together to discredit my paper. I requested that my paper receive appropriate peer review but that request was denied. Walt had trouble even assembling a team. Walt knew that my issues were technically correct and he never submitted a counter paper."

Shortly after he refused to counter Alexander's internal paper warning about the problems with the pulse jet mixer design, Tamosaitis blew his own whistle, exposing what he saw as safety failures at WTP and citing concerns that the pulse jet mixer design issues would prohibit the plant from operating correctly. As a result, Tamosaitis says he was removed from the project; Bechtel and URS both deny that they removed Tamosaitis because he raised safety concerns.

"The drive to stay on schedule is putting the whole [WTP] project at risk," Tamosaitis contends. " 'Not on my watch' is a standard mantra among [DOE and Contract] management who like to intimidate naysayers like me. These guys would rather deal with major issues down the road than fix them up front . . . Cost and schedule performance trump sound science time and again."

On March 31, 2010, Tamosaitis e-mailed Bechtel managers Michael K. Robinson and Russo about concerns about pulse jet mixer failures raised by the DOE's Alexander, to which Russo replied, "Please keep this under control. The science is over." In an internal e-mail string dated April 14, 2010, Robinson writes to Russo that he will "just have to keep [Tamosaitis] in line."

"As soon as Russo came on board, the chain of command was altered," Tamosaitis says. "Before Russo, I had to report directly to Bill Gay, a URS employee, but Russo removed Gay from the command chain and [made me communicate] directly to Mike Robinson [of Bechtel]. I think Russo believed it was easier to drive ahead with his cost and schedule push if he didn't have two URS managers directly under him."

 

In an e-mail dated March 31, 2010, Russo updated President Obama appointee Inés Triay on the situation. Triay, who did not return calls seeking comment, served as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management and oversaw the DOE's Hanford work until July, at which time she stepped down.

"It was like herding cats," Russo wrote Triay about a meeting he'd had with senior contract scientists and engineers regarding his quest to stay on schedule. "Scientists . . . were in lock step harmony when we told them the science is ending. They all hated it . . . I will send anyone on my team home if they demonstrate an unwillingness or inability to fulfill my direction."

"Walt is killing us," Russo later e-mailed Bill Gay of URS on July 1, 2010, who though removed from the chain of command still had to sign off on Tamosaitis' removal.

"Get him in your corporate office today."

"He will be gone tomorrow," Gay replied.

"This action [Tamosaitis' removal from the Hanford project] was initiated by Dale Knutson probably not knowing the sensitivity," Gay e-mailed to another employee in response to the decision to get rid of Tamosaitis.

Knutson would not respond to interview requests from Seattle Weekly. However, in a sworn statement sent to the Department of Labor, Knutson denied that he was in any way involved in the decision to demote Tamosaitis.

While no longer working on Hanford and WTP, Tamosaitis is still employed by URS, but is confined to a windowless basement office in Richland, where he says no management has spoken to him in over a year. His daily work routine isn't that of a normal URS scientist, and he is not even sure what official title he presently has. URS has recently shipped him around the country to work on various company projects as a sort of in-house consultant.

Tamosaitis is currently suing Bechtel in Washington state, as well as URS and the DOE at the federal level, over his ousting at Hanford. "It is my opinion that [Dale] Knutson and Frank Russo are in lockstep," he asserts. "Due to the constant managerial turnover [on the WTP project], these guys won't likely be there in a few years, so they'd rather have these problems happen on someone else's clock, even though it is always more expensive to fix something later then to do it right the first time."

Three sources working on the DOE's and Bechtel's Hanford vitrification project tell Seattle Weekly that "the WTP project is in total jeopardy" because of their employers' refusal to address technical and safety concerns raised by staffers like Tamosaitis and Alexander. These sources, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by their employers, believe congressional hearings in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the issue are imminent. They also contend that the project could be temporarily shut down any day due to safety concerns.

If it comes to rebuilding these hundred-million-dollar vessels, the costs will skyrocket. As a result, Hanford Challenge's Carpenter and others note, the entire project could fall apart. That means taxpayers will again have to foot the bill for WTP's redesign and construction, postponing its operation indefinitely.

"Clearly, the management system or 'safety culture' is broken," writes Alexander in an August 2 e-mail to McNulty. "I have been under tremendous stress for more than a year. It seems to me that this is beyond a purely technical issue and is a whistleblower issue."

Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

Joshua Frank

Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist and author of "Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush." He is co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland." Frank and St. Clair are also the authors of the forthcoming book, "Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism." He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.


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