Bonus money trumps safety at Hanford, experts say
by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News
Posted on May 2, 2013 at 9:37 PM
Updated today at 10:42 AM
The private companies working to clean up nuclear waste at the Hanford Site operate under contracts with the federal government that don’t reward them for reporting problems, creating a dangerous financial incentive that could delay responses to leaks of highly radioactive waste, according to one of the nation’s top nuclear policy experts.
“Reporting leaks in high-level waste tanks has been frowned upon at this site for decades,” said Bob Alvarez, a former presidential adviser on nuclear policy. “There’s this whole dynamic that is built up where people are totally discouraged from raising concerns, especially those that I call have a show-stopping nature to them, such as leaking high-level radioactive waste tanks.”
KING 5 reported last month that one private company working at the Hanford Site discounted for nearly a year mounting evidence of a leak in 241-AY-102, a double-shell tank holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of some of the most radioactive and chemically contaminated waste in the world.
“I think the Department of Energy and the contractors who work for them are riddled with honest, decent, hardworking, competent people, and I don’t mean to paint everyone with this brush,” said Alvarez. “The problem is that a lot of these competent, conscientious people are stuck in a corrupt system that needs to be fundamentally changed.”
On August 1, 2012, ten months after the first indicator that Tank AY-102 was leaking, the company — Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) — initiated a regularly scheduled video inspection during which workers spotted suspicious material on the floor of the tank’s annulus, the hollow space between the two walls of the tank.
Two-and-a-half months later — 12 months after the first leak indication — WRPS and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) confirmed and made public the leak in 241-AY-102. During that delay, deadly waste continued to leak into the space separating the tank’s inner and outer shells.
Contracting policies used by the government could explain that delay, said Alvarez, now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.
“Why are these contractors doing what they’re doing? It’s all purely economically motivated, of course.”
Contractors like WRPS are eligible for performance-based incentive money and award fees for finishing certain projects on time and on budget as outlined in their agreements with the government. During the months that red flags warned that Tank AY-102 was leaking, WRPS specifically stood to earn the most bonus money for completing work transferring nuclear waste from underground single-shell tanks at Hanford’s C Farm.
Alvarez and other experts who spoke with KING 5 said investigating and reporting the leak in AY-102 earlier on could have jeopardized the C Farm work, as WRPS may have had to shift resources — personnel and equipment — to deal with it.
“Where reward is given for only presenting good news, not bad news, then you have these problems. It’s just that simple,” Alvarez said. “It boils down to making money in a way where there’s the least amount of hassle to it.”
A leaking tank would certainly be one of those hassles, Alvarez added. “It’s a big time hassle because then it requires you to change priorities. It requires a rethinking of what you’re doing. It requires real soul searching about the competence of your work and maybe losing (bonus) money and maybe losing your contract.”
WRPS secured a $23 million bonus from the DOE for work performed in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2012 — nearly the same time period that numerous red flags pointing to a leak in AY-102 were discounted by the company. The $23 million was 98 percent of the available award money for the year and one of the biggest bonuses ever paid to WRPS. (In the previous year the company was awarded a $33 million bonus, or 99 percent of the potential amount the federal government could have awarded it.)
“We have a very serious problem with Hanford and we always have with the Energy Department and its contractors where the incentive to get a contract performance award, your cash award, for doing something at the end of the year outweighs the safety and environmental considerations,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), who also serves as executive director of the citizen watchdog group, Heart of America Northwest.
He added, “Very clearly they were aimed at getting their award money, their bonus, which would have been jeopardized by saying ‘Hey! We have a leak over here.’”
Dept. of Energy not answering
KING 5 asked the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of River Protection, if the payment structure discourages contractors from coming forward with problems. The reporters also asked if the federal government has methods in place to encourage the companies they hire to investigate and report set backs. Media professionals from the DOE didn’t answer.
The company denied that it ignored evidence of the AY-102 leak. WRPS declined KING 5 requests to interview President Mike Johnson or any other official on camera, and insisted that all its decision-making about AY-102 was based on sound science and concern for worker safety.
“Experience gained over decades of tank farm operations led us to believe that a small amount of rainwater, not waste, was collecting in the AY-102 annulus. This was based on recent heavy rainfall, the discovery of water intrusion pathways, known low levels of radioactive cross-contamination between the primary tank and the annulus, and readings from the leak detection system,” wrote a WRPS representative in a statement to KING 5 last month.
- Bonus money trumps safety at Hanford, experts say (krem.com)
- Hanford Site (whatevertheysing.wordpress.com)
- Hanford worker’s struggle to ‘do the right thing’ (king5.com)
- Washington nuclear site leaks alarm environmentalists – Video: Complete News (nonukesnw.wordpress.com)
- Sealed ‘black cells’ stall radioactive waste cleanup at Hanford nuclear reservation : The black cells will be so radioactive that human beings won’t be allowed in, and remote access is limited. (familysurvivalprotocol.com)
- Contractor discounted Hanford leak evidence for a year (king5.com)
- Lawmaker: “Smells like a very deliberate cover up” of leaks at U.S. nuclear site – “A very serious problem” (VIDEO) (enenews.com)
- Hanford nuclear waste tanks at risk of explosion (alethonews.wordpress.com)
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