A river reborn
a big chunk of the most contaminated nuclear site in the U. S. got a major cleanup -- two years ahead of schedule and US\$227 million under budget
BY DAVID BRUMMER
For centuries, the mighty Columbia River—the largest waterway by volume in the Pacific Northwest—served as a major thoroughfare and a prime fishing spot. But the river's waters were put to another use in the 1940s: cooling nuclear reactors. In a remote part of Washington, USA, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation quietly set up shop on a 50-mile (80-kilometer) stretch of the Columbia's majestic banks.
The vast site would be ground zero for nuclear weapons development, producing plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project. The scientists behind the top-secret research initiative built the first atomic bomb that ultimately helped to end World War II. But in their quest to win a nuclear arms race, the scientists paid little attention to the environmental consequences of their work. By the time the U.S. Department of Energy closed Hanford in 1987, it had the dubious distinction of being the country's most contaminated nuclear site.
With widespread groundwater contamination threatening drinking water and wildlife, the U.S. Department of Energy in 2005 hired Washington Closure Hanford (WCH)—a joint venture of AECOM, Bechtel and CH2M—to clean up 220 square miles (570 square kilometers) of the site.
The nine-year, US$2 billion River Corridor Base Scope contract involved removing more than 140,000 tons of chrome-contaminated soil from the ground, disarming two nuclear reactors and remediating 9 million tons of toxic waste—all buried in a massive landfill at the Hanford site. The project was part of a 586-square-mile (1,518-square-kilometer) cleanup of the entire Hanford site that began in 1989.
For WCH, the goal on the corridor project was to restore the portion of the Columbia around the Hanford site to its natural glory—healing an ecosystem and returning the land to public use.
“The community wanted the land back to where they could access it.”
—Gordon Dover, Washington Closure Hanford
“The community wanted the land back to where they could access it,” says Gordon Dover, director of project innovation at WCH, Richland, Washington, USA. “The Columbia is a major salmon fishery, and the Native Americans lived off that salmon for hundreds of years. The chromium coming from the site was impacting the small salmon smelt, so it was very critical to get the contamination off the river.”
The team knew it had to catalog and mitigate every potential risk to execute such a multifaceted megaproject. With explosive and radioactive materials lurking beneath the surface—and regulators, local residents and other stakeholders keeping close watch—there was no room for error.
“We planned for the best, but prepared for the worst,” says Scott Sax, PMP, president and project manager at WCH in Richland, Washington, USA. “That delayed our start of every single one of our projects, but it accelerated the actual work, because we were ready for unknowns.”
“We planned for the best, but prepared for the worst. That delayed our start of every single one of our projects, but it accelerated the actual work, because we were ready for unknowns.”
—Scott Sax, PMP, Washington Closure Hanford
PLAYING IT SAFE
Given the project's huge scope, WCH set to work developing a risk register. Then every month, the team reviewed it at performance meetings, keeping an eye out for ways to cut costs and reduce the possibility of delays, Mr. Dover says.
“In some cases, the risk actually fell outside of our baseline, and we engaged the government” to see how it wanted the issue addressed, Mr. Dover says. “But all was based on analyzing the risk, the hazard, setting up a project team to take care of it, and then properly executing that within the framework of the rest of our ongoing work.”
The risk register helped the team determine the equipment, crew and timeline needed to excavate chromium contamination that stretched to the depths of groundwater, for example. In other cases, the register allowed WCH to prep for potentially explosive hazards that not only threatened the team's safety but could also blow the timeline.
Building Tribal Trust
Long before the Manhattan Project came along in the 1940s, the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes had forged strong ties to the land. This was the place where for centuries they had fished, hunted, grazed cattle and horses, held religious ceremonies and buried their dead.
So when it came time to restore the Columbia River corridor, the Washington Closure Hanford (WCH) team knew it needed the backing of the tribes. And the only way to secure that support was by building trust.
Along with holding regular meetings with tribe members, WCH facilitated access to burial grounds and other sites the tribes had used for religious ceremonies before the federal government cordoned off the site.
As part of the collaboration, the tribes agreed to provide cultural training so WCH could recognize artifacts discovered during excavation. The tribes also helped the Hanford team identify sacred grounds to ensure they weren't disturbed during cleanup—which could have ground work to a halt.
“The tribes are very private about stuff, particularly the burial grounds,” says WCH's Scott Sax, PMP. “So we had to develop a trust with them, because our people—our environmental team and our ecologists—had to work in those areas.”
When it was time to revegetate the site, WCH leaned on the tribes’ knowledge to choose native plants with religious significance, using seeds collected and cultivated by the tribes, says Gordon Dover at WCH.
“This was their land before we came here,” he says. “We didn't want to disturb their history while cleaning up Cold War-era problems.”
And those dangers weren't always obvious.
Few records of Hanford's plutonium production existed—and some of those that did inaccurately noted where chemicals were spilled or leaked.
“Every time you stick an excavator bucket in the ground and you bring it out, it's a new surprise,” says Robert Cantwell, PMP, director of closure operations, WCH, Richland, Washington, USA.
In one landfill, radioactive drums could ignite and turn into a virtual bonfire if the chemical within the drums—nicknamed “Sparky”—was exposed to air. So the team kept practicing. The first time a drum caught fire during excavation, the team had it buried within three seconds. But operations were shut down for a month so the team could hold critiques and review lessons learned to reduce future delays. After the second drum caught fire, operations closed for just a week; after the third drum caught fire, the shutdown lasted just one morning, Mr. Dover says.
“Our techniques worked,” he says. “Basically, we were able to take a potentially very big risk to the public and mitigate it.”
The team also had to be diligent about the daily use of heavy equipment that moved all that radioactive material. During peak operations, trucks hauled 600 containers of toxic waste each day. To reduce the possibility of accidents and keep on schedule, Mr. Dover says, trucks followed a looped road in a single direction so they never crossed paths.
“Most people would think that the radiological or chemical safety issues are the biggest [safety] issues. But they're really not,” Mr. Dover says. “It's the standard work practices. That's where we have to be careful on safety.”
SATISFYING THE SKEPTICS
Every organization strives to complete its projects as quickly and efficiently as possible. But WCH had even more of an incentive: Eighty percent of every U.S. dollar the team saved was reinvested into additional work, and 20 percent of every U.S. dollar saved was paid to WCH as a reward, Mr. Sax says.
Sometimes it just took small-scale efficiencies to deliver big results. When WCH discovered thousands of tiny bottles in a waste burial site, the team initially planned to have workers in protective suits collect the bottles one at a time, put them in a bag and send them to another work area to be safely crushed, Mr. Cantwell says. But after consulting with regulators, the team determined it was safe to have excavator operators modify their equipment so they could scoop and crush the bottles en mass on-site.
Team members were “very good at taking a step back and saying, ‘There's an easier way to do this,’” Mr. Cantwell says. “It doesn't always have to be high tech.”
Still, WCH knew some local community members and federal regulators—as well as all U.S. taxpayers—might worry the contract would prompt the team to “cut corners … that we'd do things cheap at the expense of quality,” Mr. Sax says. “So we had to demonstrate that we weren't doing that.”
Above, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation during operation. Right, after field remediation work in June 2012, only the cocooned F Reactor remained.
WCH won over government regulators by walking them through all the steps it would take to mitigate risks and complete the job as promised. The approach had a trickle-down effect as satisfied regulators passed on their praise to federal lawmakers who approved annual funding for the project, Mr. Sax says.
The team also held public demonstrations to show the community and local media how WCH was mitigating and managing safety risks, he says. Those displays of expertise led to news reports, which, in turn, helped WCH generate community support and develop stakeholder trust.
The lesson was clear: “People will trust the watchdogs more than they trust the team that's actually doing the work,” Mr. Sax says.
BACK TO NATURE
Remediation on the Hanford site will continue for years to come, but the River Corridor Base Scope project was completed in January 2014. And it's a powerful case study in showing that quality, efficiency and safety are not mutually exclusive.
The project finished US$227 million under budget and two years ahead of schedule, earning WCH a bonus of US$30.2 million. The team also earned one of the best safety records documented by the U.S. Department of Energy. WCH had two long stretches during the project when it lost no time because of an accident or injury. During each stretch, combining all workers’ time, the team completed more than 5 million consecutive hours of work without a time-loss safety incident.
And the project's benefits are already as clear as the Columbia River's pristine waters. A portion of the Hanford site is slated to become part of the Manhattan Project National Park. But it's not just about building some monument to the Cold War. It's about returning Hanford to its natural state.
“The groups here at WCH are environmentalists at their core. They want to restore the land,” Mr. Sax says. “It's not a farm. It's not a ranch. It's not a city. It's what it was before all that.” pm
A Post-Nuclear Renewal
1987: The U.S. government closes the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located along the banks of the Columbia River in Washington, USA. It is the largest toxic waste site in U.S. history.
2005: The U.S. Department of Energy chooses joint venture Washington Closure Hanford (WCH) to manage the US$2 billion River Corridor Base Scope project. Its goal is to remediate 220 square miles (570 square kilometers) of the Hanford site.
January 2012: WCH reaches 6 million hours of work without an accident or injury.
September 2012: The team completes the cocooning for interim stabilization of the N-Reactor area, which had produced plutonium for nuclear weapons.
July 2013: 15 million tons of contaminated debris, most of it from the River Corridor project area, is disposed of at the Hanford site.
January 2014: WCH completes the project two years ahead of schedule and US$227 million under budget.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
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