Complex problem ... simple concepts ... transformed organization


John C. Fulton

In 1989, the Department of Energy's Hanford Site in Richland, Washington, changed its mission from producing plutonium for Cold War-era nuclear weapons, to facility shutdown, decommissioning and site cleanup. This mission change resulted in a series of evolutions in organizational structure and management systems at the site. The Department of Energy (DOE) and its prime Hanford contractor, Westinghouse Hanford Company, found that they needed to manage their work in a different and more aggressive fashion. In early 1994 “projectization” became the mechanism for that change.

The first step occurred in January 1994 when Dr. LaMar Trego became president of Westinghouse Hanford. He created a project to address one of the site's most urgent threats: 2,100 metric tons of degraded spent nuclear fuel left over from the Cold War. This highly radioactive spent fuel is stored in 40-year-old leak-prone basins located a stone's throw from the last wild stretch of the Columbia River in Washington State. The Spent Nuclear Fuel Project's goal is to resolve this problem rapidly.

The challenges are organizational as well as technical. Obviously, the traditional management approaches used for 45 years to operate Hanford's Cold War production facilities would not be aggressive and responsive enough to meet the challenge of dealing with the spent fuel issues. Speed, agility, and a singular focus on the end result were essential.

The chosen approach was simple in concept: assemble an integrated project team with all the resources necessary to reduce or eliminate the safety and environmental risks posed by Hanford's spent fuel inventory. However, changing the historical way of doing business at Hanford, where services such as engineering, operations, quality assurance and human resources were separate organizational entities, posed a much greater challenge. Staff from these separate organizations had to be distributed among the project team where their talents could be focused on a common goal.

The Problem

Nearly all of the spent fuel at Hanford is stored in the K Basins, two rectangular concrete pools adjacent to the K East and K West Plutonium Production Reactors. Built in the early 1950s as temporary storage for spent fuel discharged by the reactors, together the two pools are about half the size of a football field. Each basin is 25 feet deep and divided into three sections. The K West and K East Basin buildings sit a few hundred yards apart, and only about 400 yards from the Columbia River.

Before the K Reactors were shut down in 1970 and 1971, spent fuel was shipped from the basins to the Plutonium-Uranium Extraction, or PUREX, plant. At PUREX, the fuel was dissolved in an acid bath and the plutonium and uranium chemically extracted.

In the 1970s the K Basins inherited a long-term mission for which they weren't designed. After the Nixon Administration negotiated an arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union, plutonium production was curtailed and, in 1973, the PUREX plant was shut down. But, in order to avert an energy crisis in the Pacific Northwest, the unique dual-purpose (plutonium/electricity production) N Reactor kept operating. While spent fuel piled up at N Reactor, the nearby K Reactor fuel basins served as temporary storage for the surplus fuel because they were considered the best option available at the time.

The K Basins were meant to be a short-term option, but in the ensuing decades short term has become long term. The PUREX plant wasn't expected to be out of operation for long, but it ended up being shut down for nine years, from 1972 to 1983. Then the Reagan Administration ordered the resumption of production of weapons-grade plutonium. Yet much of the N Reactor fuel stored in the basins was unsuitable for this mission. As a result, when PUR-EX was shut down permanently in 1989, 2,100 metric tons of spent fuel were left over.

Today N Reactor fuel slugs, some dating back to the early 1970s, are stored upright in metal racks beneath 16 feet of water, which acts as a radiation shield. More than 105,000 spent fuel slugs are submerged in the basins; about 6,000 of them severely damaged and corroded. Radioactive materials, including uranium, plutonium, cesium and strontium, are continuously released into the basin water.

Complexity, Risk, Time Pressure

About 98 percent of Hanford's 2,100 metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel, including fuel slugs, fuel fragments and highly radioactive sludge, are stored in the K Basins. Fuel slugs stored in the K East Basin are damaged from the oxidation of the uranium metal on contact with water. In addition, some of the floor of the basin is covered with a sludge-like mixture of zirconium oxide, iron oxide, fuel fragments, dirt and debris. By contrast, fuel stored in the K West Basin is encapsulated in canisters.

The 40-year-old K Basins have far outlived their 20-year design lives and do not meet current safety standards. Maintenance and upgrades at the two basins have been neglected for decades, making them expensive to operate, and aged electrical and water systems pose serious safety concerns for workers. Protecting workers from radiation and contamination also increases operating costs. Operating the two basins costs taxpayers about $35 million a year—nearly $100,000 a day.

Complicating the K Basin fuel storage is its potential vulnerability to earthquake damage. A major earthquake in the vicinity could open an unreinforced construction joint in the floor of the basins, a joint which was the source of a 15-million-gallon leak of contaminated water in the late 1970s. A 1993 leak allowed another 94,000 gallons to escape into the sandy soil along the banks of the Columbia River. If the more than two million gallons of contaminated water suddenly drained from the basins, the radiation field from the exposed fuel would make recovery both hazardous and difficult. And the sludge in the K East Basins could dry out and become airborne, resulting in an off-site release of highly radioactive materials.

Due to this vulnerability, and given the budgetary constraints faced by the Hanford cleanup program, it is very difficult to design and implement a single solution that is both technically adequate and economically feasible. Any proposed solution must:

  • Fall within strict budget constraints
  • Have a sound technical basis
  • Meet modern seismic resistance standards for a nuclear facility
  • Take into account the degraded physical condition of the spent fuel
  • Comply with a complex state and federal regulatory framework
  • Be accepted by the public, and
  • Quickly get the fuel out of the K Basins and into safe storage.

Westinghouse Hanford management regards the K Basins as an accident waiting to happen, and removing the fuel and placing it in dry storage is a race against time. The problem is being addressed by a dual path that promises an immediate improvement in the risk posed by the spent fuel in the K Basins and simultaneously sets the stage for getting the fuel out of the basins.

Because earthquake vulnerability was the most urgent risk, in April 1995 engineered steel barriers were placed in the basins to isolate the fuel storage area from the construction joint. Should the joint now fail and open, these barriers will keep the basins from losing a large amount of water. But the barriers only provide a stopgap measure to prevent a catastrophic accident. The fuel must be relocated.

Involving the Stakeholders

Hanford's spent fuel inventory has long been recognized as a serious problem. But, like many of the problems in the DOE complex, the spent fuel languished in obscurity while other more high-profile problems received priority and funding. That changed in December 1993 when DOE Secretary Hazel O'Leary focused national attention on DOE's spent fuel problems. With 80 percent of the DOE's spent fuel stored at Hanford, the aging K Basins soon became a top national priority.

Since 1993, Westinghouse Hanford has:

  • Moved the spent fuel issue from the back of the stove to the front burner
  • Scrapped the old strategy for dealing with the fuel, and
  • Developed a new strategy that has been approved internally, by DOE-HQ, and—perhaps most importantly—by the public.

Much of the project's success can be attributed to innovative, proactive, and comprehensive public involvement. Han-ford's stakeholders—the media, activists, regulators and oversight groups, Indian tribes, government leaders, Congress, and Hanford employees—were instrumental in focusing management thinking. Involving the public helps a project manager avoid decision gridlock and negative reaction. It helps focus the debate by getting the public's attention away from details and onto the big picture.

The public helped decision-making by forcing management to break out of its comfort zone and to look at the spent fuel issue from a fresh perspective. Hanford's past mistakes in dealing with the public showed the risks of not involving stakeholders. Unfortunately, because of those mistakes and Hanford's history of secrecy, the public initially had no confidence in the process. Hanford's lack of credibility was a major hurdle to overcome.

Two elements were key to building credibility. The first was giving a full and open accounting of past actions by clearly showing how Hanford got into this spent fuel storage mess. That was the only way to put away the past and focus on the current problem.

Secondly, the fundamental nature of the process used to involve the public had to be changed. During the secrecy of the Cold War, the public had been excluded from all Hanford activities, and the carryover from this mindset still affected relations with the public when DOE and its Hanford contractors first began trying to involve them. Thus, their initial efforts were not particularly successful. The government model became known as the “DAD” approach to public involvement: “Decide, Announce, Defend.” Building credibility called for a new approach: the “80/20 rule.” Eighty percent of the time was spent describing problems and only 20 percent talking about possible solutions. In fact, the first five months of the Spent Fuel Project was spent discussing problems before stakeholders were ready to listen to possible solutions.

At the start of the public involvement program, few options existed, making it easy to discuss problems. The ensuing debate on options focused on the need to protect the Columbia River. Finally, the stakeholders were presented four distinct options for accomplishing this goal:

  • Encapsulate the fuel and leave it in the K Basins
  • Place it in wet storage elsewhere at Hanford
  • Put it in dry storage at Hanford, or
  • Ship the fuel overseas for reprocessing.

The next three months were spent reviewing these options with stakeholders, regulators, and the three Indian Nations that would be affected. The stakeholder's input was funneled into engineering evaluations and ultimately into the decision process. All this was accomplished prior to starting the environmental impact statement.

Risk-Based Decision-Making

Selecting a path forward to relocate the K Basin fuel to safe interim storage required evaluating the alternatives and their potential risks to establish a high confidence level in the recommended approach. The evaluation process included:

  • Screening alternatives against technical and safety requirements
  • Programmatic risk assessment
  • Health, safety and environmental risk assessment, and
  • Multi-attribute decision analysis.

The results of this analysis, coupled with stakeholders' input, led to the formulation of the “Recommended Path Forward” that would be accepted by DOE Assistant Secretary Thomas Grumbly in November 1994.

The recommended approach includes an immediate expedited response phase and the interim storage of fuel at a safer location. During the first step, the fuel will be removed from the containers in the K Basins, cleaned of sludge, repackaged in large “overpack” canisters, and almost all of the water removed by a cold vacuum drying process. The “dry” fuel will then be shipped about nine miles to the Canister Storage Building.

In the second phase, the remaining chemically bound water and other hydrogen sources will be removed from the fuel using a hot vacuum drying process. The fuel canisters will then be placed in interim storage in a passively cooled concrete vault. The fuel will remain there for a minimum of 40 years, or until a permanent national repository is ready.

Some of the factors considered in the process of formulating this plan are discussed below.

The Original Strategy. The Spent Nuclear Fuel Project was established in February 1994 by Westinghouse Hanford Company, Hanford's prime contractor, in response to a DOE study that found the K Basins were among the riskiest facilities in the DOE complex. A November 1994 strategy recommended putting the fuel into new containers and moving it to a new storage building in Hanford's 200 area, ten miles from the Columbia River. A processing plant would dry, chemically treat and stabilize the fuel, which would remain in dry storage at Hanford for 40 years, or until the federal government opened a permanent repository. The proposed schedule would have removed the fuel from the basins by the end of the year 2000.

But Assistant Secretary Grumbly challenged Westinghouse to shave 12 to 18 months from the schedule. That all but eliminated building a new facility; it couldn't be sited, designed and built in the allotted time.

Back to the Drawing Board. The focus then shifted to existing Hanford buildings. Several facilities had already been rejected, including the 40-year-old PUREX reprocessing plant; the completed, but never used, Fuels and Materials Examination Facility; and the unfinished Washington Public Power Supply System nuclear projects.

But one building had been overlooked: the partially completed storage building for the Hanford Waste Vitrification Plant. The plant was originally intended to mix high-level radioactive waste from Hanford's underground tanks with molten glass for storage in stainless steel canisters. The canisters were to have been stored in concrete vaults in the Canister Storage Building. But construction was stopped in 1993 with the building about 10 percent complete.

Yet the Canister Storage Building had many of the features needed for spent fuel storage. It was designed for long-term storage of highly radioactive material, meets safety and earthquake requirements, and is located in the 200 East area.

Cost and Schedule. Completing the Canister Storage Building for spent fuel storage will cut a year from the previously proposed schedule. Because siting, utilities, foundation work and much of the design has been completed, Westinghouse estimates the fuel can begin to be removed from the K Basins in November 1997, with removal completed by December 1999. The cost of finishing the Canister Storage Building, purchasing equipment such as the storage canisters, transport cask and fuel processing equipment, removing the fuel, stabilizing it and placing it in dry storage is estimated to be about $350 million.

When the project is complete, the cost of maintaining the fuel will drop from $100,000 a day for storage at the K Basins to $3,000 a day for dry storage.

The K Basin's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was completed in March 1996, 11 months after it was started. Design of the Canister Storage Building was under way prior to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Record of Decision. Construction commenced immediately upon EIS completion.

The Project Organization

The Spent Nuclear Fuel Project, an integrated and seamless project management organization, comprises staff from West-inghouse, ICF Kaiser Hanford Company and DOE's Pacific Northwest Laboratory. The staff from the three firms is structured around subproject organizations. These subproject teams are somewhat delayered and highly flexible. They provide internal freedom to rotate competent, self-managed teams and other resources around a common knowledge base. This organization also provides needed resources through strategic alliances with other subcontractors and outsourcing of work through a competitive bidding process.

The effectiveness of the spent fuel project's organization lies in its flexible, rapid response to issues. It can arrange and rearrange its resources and competencies to accommodate changing regulatory and budgetary constraints on the project. Just as management philosophies are built on assumptions of employees' capabilities and trustworthiness, the integrated project management model relies on team members developing technical, business and self-management skills. It takes into account the staff's current technical abilities, but it also has the capability to harness new competencies to meet project needs cost-effectively. The project organization, working as an integrated structure, provides the creativity and intellectual capital needed to find a long-term solution.

Top Management's Role

A fundamental task of top management is mapping a project strategy that the staff can strongly identify with. Communicating a meaningful project vision builds commitment and gives employees a common goal. The vision of quickly removing the spent fuel threat energizes and focuses project employees. This common vision also helps meld the identities of participating organizations into an integrated project team.

Employees are expected to be knowledgeable not only in their technical areas, but also in cost, price, schedule and capital requirements. In this integrated project management organization, management disperses decision-making power at a level in the project organization where it is most needed, while maintaining discipline and order. Management and employees share project leadership. Management decides what needs to be done, but allows the project staff to determine the best way to achieve it.


Westinghouse organized its integrated Spent Nuclear Fuel Project just two years ago. While this is too short a period to determine the ultimate success of the project, it is already being held up as the model for the entire DOE complex. The project's plan and schedule to address Hanford's spent fuel problem has been adopted by the DOE, regulators and the public. It calls for removing the fuel from the K Basins by December 1999, three years ahead of the previous schedule, saving taxpayers about $350 million.

Adhering to this schedule involves several bold and calculated risks. For instance, the Environmental Impact Statement was completed in 11 months, rather than the 18 to 36 months it usually takes the government. The design, construction and startup of the fuel storage facility will have to be completed in 24 months. And the actual removal, packaging, conditioning and transport of the fuel is scheduled to be completed within 24 months thereafter.

To meet these commitments, three company cultures are being successfully merged into a cohesive workforce. The workforce shares a common goal of safely relocating the fuel at a reasonable cost while complying with state and federal regulations. Complicating the challenge is the redefining of Hanford's cleanup scope and schedule, declining budgets, and downsized contractor staffs.


The successful development and implementation of integrated project management at Hanford is the result of ideas, thought process and foresight of several individuals and organizations.

LaMar Trego, president of Westinghouse Hanford Company, for identifying the need to take decisive action to solve Hanford's spent fuel problem.

John Wagoner, manager of DOE's Richland Operations, and his Spent Fuel Project staff for recognizing the urgency of the project and continuing to support the funding requirements.

Bob Tiller, president of ICH Kaiser Hanford, and Dr. Bill Madia, director of DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for providing dedicated and talented staff to the project.

The Spent Nuclear Fuel Project staff for their unrelenting determination to succeed in removing this threat to the environment. ■

John C. Fulton is director of the Spent Nuclear Fuel Project for the Westinghouse Hanford Company, the project responsible for managing the disposition of all of the spent nuclear fuels at the Hanford site.

PM Network • July 1996