Federal investigators with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said problems, first identified six years ago, continue to affect the Hanford vitrification plant, Hanfordnews reported on 24 April. The Department of Energy (DOE)  and its contractor, Bechtel National, have not shown that the plant has the quality needed to operate safely when it starts treating high-level waste. Bechtel has not fully completed planned corrections, and the improvements already made have not prevented continuing quality assurance problems, GAO said. The $17bn plant began construction in 2002 and is expected to vitrify 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons programme in preparation for its disposal.

The quality assurance programme aims to ensure that equipment, materials, workmanship and systems have the high quality (verified through stringent record-keeping) to provide confidence that the plant will operate safely.  GAO said that the responsible Hanford DOE office, the Office of River Protection (ORP), is under pressure to get part of the plant started up. If serious quality assurance problems are identified, they could threaten the ability of ORP to meet cost and schedule targets, the report said.

Two ORP quality assurance experts said that both local DOE management and Bechtel place cost and schedule performance above identifying and resolving quality tracking issues. "One quality assurance expert specified that ORP's culture does not encourage staff to identify quality assurance problems or ineffective corrective measures," the GAO report said. "This expert said that people who discover problems are not rewarded," it said. "Rather, their findings are met with resistance, which has created a culture where quality assurance staff are hesitant to identify quality assurance problems or problems with corrective measures." GAO recommended that ORP should revise its organisational structure to make quality assurance independent of its upper management.

Anne White, the new DOE assistant secretary for environmental management in a written response to GAO, said that the current ORP quality assurance reporting relationship meets 'all established requirements'. However, she conceded that the report identifies some instances in which independence of quality assurance could be strengthened.

In December 2012 the ORP vitrification plant engineering division recommended that all activities affecting engineering design, construction, and installation of components should be suspended because, according to the report, it could not be verified that completed work met quality and safety requirements for handling nuclear waste. Instead of stopping all work, ORP management halted only work on facilities with the most significant technical challenges.
ORP conducted a comprehensive audit the next year, as a result of which,  Bechtel began implementing a management improvement plan for completion by April 2016. Bechtel in 2014 estimated that the improvement plan would cost more than $1bn, but the costs of have not been tracked, the GAO report said. Bechtel reported that implementation of the plan was complete, but not all corrective measures were finished, according to information the GAO said it received.

ORP officials told GAO investigators that they had not stopped work because they thought the programme is 'generally adequate'. However future rework could increase costs and delays because the stop-work option has not been used as verification continues, the GAO report said.
The GAO recommended that ORP direct Bechtel to determine the full extent of problems at the vitrification plant. It found that Bechtel had not identified all quality assurance problems in structures, systems and components that were completed and installed before the 2012 work stoppage.

The majority of ORP quality assurance experts said they expected rework would be needed at the plant on some pre-2012 work. But when problems are found through the limited sampling of those plant components, a broader look is not ordered, the GAO report said. ORP quality assurance experts also noted that previously identified quality problems are recurring, including in areas where Bechtel had made corrections, GAO said. These included purchasing items and services that did not meet requirements or perform as specified, including software, according to GAO.

Also, Bechtel had not established an adequate maintenance programme to prevent damage or deterioration, particularly for parts of the plant where operations will be delayed, the report found. The plant is not required to be fully operating until 2036. However, DOE now requires the plant to start vitrification of some low-activity radioactive waste in 2023. Construction on parts of the plant that will handle high-level radioactive waste has been suspended since 2012.

There have been problems due to the delay in construction.  Components stored outside have been affected by water, sand or animals. There also was a significant water leak at one of the large processing buildings in 2016, according to the GAO report. Bechtel has informed DOE that it will enter a proposal to change its contract to account for the increased cost of long-term maintenance of facilities and systems that will not be needed when low-activity waste treatment starts.