Waste Makes Haste
A U. S. Project Team Won A Race Against Time To Contain A Radioactive Leak
BY MATT SCHUR
PORTRAITS BY KIM FETROW
From left, Sebastien Guillot, PMP, Doug Greenwell, PMP, and Reggie Eakins
Nuclear cleanup projects have no margin for error. One misstep can expose workers and a region's environment to devastating radioactive contaminants. But a project team at a legacy U.S. site had to be more than just painstakingly precise. It also had to be really fast—and frugal.
The three-year, US$107.3 million AY-102 Recovery project was triggered by an emergency. A 40-year-old underground storage tank holding 750,000 gallons (2.8 million liters) of nuclear waste sprang a leak. The team needed to make sure that not a drop of waste reached the nearby Columbia River, the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. The project called for removing all waste from the faulty tank and transferring it to a new underground container for safe storage.
“As soon as the leak was discovered, the regulators and public wanted it gone yesterday.”
—Reggie Eakins, Office of River Protection, U.S. Department of Energy, Richland, Washington, USA
The mission was clear and had to fit within an existing U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) cleanup program at the Hanford Site, which once developed plutonium to fuel nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War era. The leak, discovered in August 2012, was the first breach of a double-shell tank among the 56 million gallons (212 million liters) of highly radioactive waste buried in 177 tanks.
“As soon as the leak was discovered, the regulators and public wanted it gone yesterday,” says Reggie Eakins, tank retrieval program manager, Office of River Protection, U.S. Department of Energy, Richland, Washington, USA.
Site operator Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) initially estimated that even the most aggressive schedule would require as many as five years to retrieve the tank's waste and store it in a new, stable double-shell tank. But that wasn't fast enough. A court order initiated by the DOE and the State of Washington's Department of Ecology required the project to be completed in less than 36 months. Otherwise, WRPS would face financial and legal penalties.
An aerial view of the site. Below right, workers wear protective gear.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WASHINGTON RIVER PROTECTION SOLUTIONS
In a race against time, the project team refused to panic. The team first took steps to identify a host of other known and unknown potential risks, fill resource gaps and assure nervous public stakeholders that the entire region would remain safe.
“I wouldn't say it was mission impossible,” says Sebastien Guillot, PMP, a project manager with subcontractor AREVA Federal Services, Richland, Washington, USA. “But a lot of people thought, ‘Boy, these guys are in trouble. Doing this in less than three years? Good luck.’”
The odds were stacked against them. An early Monte Carlo analysis predicted the team had a 12 percent chance of succeeding. And the schedule was so aggressive that there wasn't enough time to incorporate specialized equipment into much of the execution phase. For instance, vendors couldn't design and manufacture specialized sluicers used to remove waste until relatively late in the schedule. So the team turned to older equipment for the bulk of work.
“It was not to the degree of sophistication that we typically use today but was sufficient to get the work going,” says Doug Greenwell, PMP, single-shell tank retrieval manager, WRPS, Richland, Washington, USA. The team used the old equipment to retrieve 90 percent of the waste in the tank. The new equipment was used for the final 10 percent.
The team also deployed two full-time schedulers who ultimately oversaw 9,000 activities. They conducted as many as seven weekly meetings devoted to scheduling issues. A critical-path analysis proved to be the team's most important scheduling tool.
“Roughly 15 to 20 percent of our time was spent revising the schedule status and progress, while also doing a very thorough critical-path analysis to constantly monitor where the longest pole in the tent is in the project and what can we do to at least make sure it's not getting longer,” Mr. Guillot says.
The approach not only helped keep team members and stakeholders informed but also allowed the team to quickly respond to any surprises on critical-path activities. With Mr. Guillot calling for expeditious solutions at every turn, team members embraced the chance to fast-track new opportunities that cropped up. These time-saving efforts paid off—particularly during the planning phase when the team built up 71 days of float that was sorely needed to narrowly hit a March 2016 deadline so waste removal could begin.
“A lot of people thought, ‘Boy, these guys are in trouble. Doing this in less than three years? Good luck.’”
—Sebastien Guillot, PMP, AREVA Federal Services, Richland, Washington, USA
The entire project ultimately closed 17 days ahead of schedule early this year.
“More often than not, we would walk out of meetings with a real sense of accomplishment, saying, ‘Hey, we made progress today. We fixed a problem. We accelerated our schedule. Now we're in a better position,’” Mr. Guillot says.
2012: A leak is discovered in nuclear waste tank AY-102.
2013: Remediation options are explored and a recovery plan is developed and proposed to U.S. Department of Energy.
2014: Project launches. Engineering, design and procurement begin.
2015: Construction and installation of equipment completes.
2016: Operations to remove waste begin.
February 2017: Retrieval operations completed.
Staying on schedule also meant anticipating potential risks from day one. Mitigating them was an essential task: The original timeline had zero built-in days to allow for any contingencies.
“You can't actually ask people to trust an agency or a company. But they can trust you as the project manager if they get to know you.”
—Doug Greenwell, PMP, Washington River Protection Solutions, Richland, Washington, USA
Doug Greenwell, PMP, single-shell tank retrieval manager, Washington River Protection Solutions
Location: Richland, Washington, USA
Experience: 31 years
Other notable projects:
Advanced mixed waste treatment project, Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA. Completed in 2017. Mr. Greenwell served as vice president and plant manager.
Uranium mill tailings remedial action project, Grand Junction and Denver, Colorado, USA. Completed in 1990. Mr. Greenwell served as construction manager.
Career lesson learned:
“Build the strongest, most talented project team that time and budget will allow. Continually develop a culture of trust and shared values within your team. Their strength will overcome all obstacles.”
“Because of this huge schedule challenge, we had to somehow find a way to build up some float in the schedule and anticipate potential upsets to better control our destiny,” Mr. Guillot says. “Risk management was the best tool we had to ensure effective execution.”
As project planning began, the team immediately conducted a qualitative analysis to make a list of anything that could go wrong that would impact the budget or schedule. It then prioritized the most likely risks and identified which potential problems would have the biggest impact on the budget and schedule. Once execution started, Mr. Guillot's team met weekly to constantly challenge and revise the risk register. “Because of that, they identified a few things that prevented the project from going off the cliff,” Mr. Greenwell says.
For instance, Mr. Guillot's team feared that the aging tank's ventilation system could fail. So the team beefed up the ventilation system at the start to make it more reliable. The additional cost was covered by budget reserves, which were carefully managed to keep the project within budget, Mr. Guillot says.
“If you meet the schedule on a project of this magnitude, you're pretty much guaranteed to control your costs,” he says. “From a high-level standpoint, what drives the cost is the time you spend to execute the project.”
In the end, the project came in US$8.7 million under budget.
A SAFE PACE
Despite the extremely tight schedule, the project team refused to take safety shortcuts that could put workers or the surrounding community at risk.
“Nuclear waste cleanup is founded in very strong safety cultures,” Mr. Greenwell says. “We follow an integrated safety management system, which provides a framework that builds the tools you need for safety.”
Workers wore anti-contamination protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatuses when performing tasks near the tank. The gear helped to protect the workers from potential exposure to the highly radioactive and hazardous chemical waste. For instance, during waste retrieval tasks, workers avoided the risk of chemical vapors by wearing backpack-mounted oxygen tanks. Weather also created safety risks, because temperatures at the work site frequently exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). During the hottest months, project managers adjusted work schedules by assigning workers to overnight shifts to keep them safe and cool.
“The public can be assured that there will be no threat from that waste spilling into our river, ground or in the air.”
But front-line workers weren't the only team members facing heat. Project managers had to manage community leaders and other skeptical stakeholders. Earning their trust couldn't happen overnight. So the team unrolled a plan to build buy-in throughout the project. Components included frequent press releases and meetings with reporters to provide detailed project updates. The team also created the Hanford Advisory Board, comprising community leaders and representatives from Washington and the neighboring state of Oregon, which also relies on the Columbia River. Face-to-face presentations, given by project managers or program managers every few months, provided the board status updates and progress made toward emptying waste from the tank.
“You can't actually ask people to trust an agency or a company,” Mr. Greenwell says. “But they can trust you as the project manager if they get to know you, if you share your integrity and your commitment to the project and to their interests. That's how you build confidence with your stakeholders.”
A FINE BALANCE
The project's risk register also encompassed the team's resourcing approach. To stay within budget, it had to rely heavily on existing resources within the larger Hanford Site program—without jeopardizing other cleanup projects.
“Success in [AY-102] but failing at every other project that we're doing would have made the company unsuccessful and the Department of Energy unsuccessful,” Mr. Eakins says.
The team assigned the most senior and skilled workers to handle the most difficult project tasks, such as any work that had to be completed close to the nuclear waste. Senior staff supervised and trained about 100 new workers hired in the first three months to support the project. As those workers developed skills, they shifted to tackle more advanced tasks.
“It takes very highly qualified field workers to do the kind of work that we do, and there's only so many of them that have been trained at the site,” Mr. Greenwell says. “We hooked them up with mentors of the more seasoned workers, and we had them do less hazardous tasks while they were getting oriented in the work.”
Developing new talent also delivered long-term benefits. Having additional skilled and experienced workers ensures the organization is prepared to spring into action should another leak occur.
“Heaven help us if we have another tank that leaks. But if we do, we now know enough about the steps we need to take,” Mr. Greenwell says. “We have enough equipment and inventory that the response time will be a lot shorter.”
With the project in the rearview mirror, the team is sharing lessons learned with other nuclear storage sites across the country about how to save time, money and resources on such projects. And WRPS continues to study what caused the AY-102 leak. Understanding the culprit could prevent future waste leaks and lead to improvements in the lifespan of Hanford's other 26 double-shell nuclear waste storage tanks, Mr. Eakins says.
“With the potential threat of the leak removed and with the threat of leaks from other tanks now stabilized, the public can be assured that there will be no threat from that waste spilling into our river, ground or in the air.” PM
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