The Energy Department has asserted that Bechtel Corp. underplayed safety risks from equipment it is installing at the nation’s largest nuclear waste cleanup project, according to government records.A federal engineering review team found in late July that Bechtel’s safety evaluation of key equipment at the plant at the Hanford site in Washington state was incomplete and that "the risks are more serious" than Bechtel acknowledged when it sought approval to continue with construction, the documents say.
But the plant has been repeatedly stung by problems and delays, including a 2006 work stoppage when engineers determined it could not withstand a severe earthquake and that major retrofitting was required.
Senior scientists at the site said in emails obtained by The Times that Bechtel’s designs for tanks and mixing equipment are flawed, representing such a massive risk that work should be stopped on that part of the construction project.
"Clearly, the management system or safety culture is broken," said Donald H. Alexander, a chemist in the division of nuclear safety, in an Aug. 2 email to top Energy Department officials. "I find the behavior of management to be appalling."
Alexander said he was pressured to concur on technical issues but refused, and that top managers at the project had attempted to discredit his technical work. He is the second top scientist at the project to allege that management is running roughshod over scientists.
Walter Tamosaitis, the research and technology chief for Bechtel subcontractor URS Corp., was removed from his job last year and put in a basement office with nothing to do after raising similar safety concerns about the plant’s design.