In 1969, when the last container of radioactive waste from the Rocky Flats bomb factory in Colorado was buried at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, no one really knew what was stored underground in the one-acre landfill.
Federal officials knew generally what
filled the unlined pit, created by excavating 20 feet down to a
solid layer of basalt lava and then covering the rock with a layer
of soil. For decades nuclear bomb makers had been shipping a
mixture of transuranic waste and toxic sludges. The radioactive
debris arrived in almost 4,000 55-gallon drums, 2,452 cardboard
boxes, and 72 containers of unknown debris. On top of all this, Pit
9 managers placed another layer of soil.
sat, some 550 feet above the eastern Snake River Plain aquifer,
until the Department of Energy contracted with a private company to
clean up Pit 9.
Now, the investigative arm of
Congress, the General Accounting Office, has dubbed this first
attempt at privatizing nuclear cleanup efforts a failure.
The GAO's stinging review of failed deadlines
and cost overruns caused a House subcommittee to hold oversight
hearings this summer. Congressional representatives were not
pleased that the Pit 9 project had fallen more than two years
behind schedule, no cleanup had begun, and the subcontractor
charged with doing the work, Lockheed Martin Advanced Environmental
Systems, wants taxpayers to double its contract fee to $457
million. It had originally agreed to a fixed-price
The U.S. Department of Energy,
meanwhile, has been fined $940,000 by the state of Idaho and the
Environmental Protection Agency for failing to ensure that its
contractors and subcontractors stayed on schedule. The DOE could
face additional fines of $10,000 a week if it fails to deliver a
new cleanup plan design and schedule by Sept.
The botched cleanup project has important
implications, the GAO report said, because the DOE has requested $1
billion for privately run waste cleanup projects in fiscal 1998.
The Pit 9 project was supposed to be a model for future cleanup of
buried nuclear waste at other DOE labs in the United
"We hate saying we're frustrated, but we
haven't come up with a better word," said Kathleen Trevor, director
of the state's engineering lab oversight office in Idaho
"We expect the DOE to deliver on the
commitment it made to the state. We're not going to be satisfied
with a bunch of back-of-the-envelope estimates for a new schedule."
Complicating matters are the multiple layers of
management involved with the project. Lockheed Martin Idaho
Technologies Co., the general contractor, is supervising its sister
company and subcontractor, Lockheed Martin Advanced Environmental
Systems. The DOE has oversight responsibility over them
All three parties have pledged to meet the
Sept. 30 deadline and attempt to move the cleanup project forward.
But behind the scenes, Lockheed Martin AES, the subconstractor, has
indicated that it won't charge ahead in earnest until it knows how
much Lockheed Martin ITC, the contractor, will pay for cost
Subcontractor officials blame the DOE
and the contractor for "excessive interference," the GAO report
said, for nit-picking engineering and cleanup design reports,
filing some 7,000 comments about the details of the project, and
changing the contents of Pit 9 in
Clair Fitch, program manager of the
Pit 9 cleanup for Lockheed Martin ITC, said the safety-related
comments were made in hopes of keeping the project on track and
"I am positive, if we hadn't
made our concerns known, that project wouldn't have started up in
my lifetime," Fitch said.
As for allegations that
the contractor changed the contents of Pit 9, Fitch and the state's
representative, Kathleen Trevor, said the contents were never
changed significantly in a quantitative sense. Lockheed Martin AES
officials claim the pit contents were changed substantially enough
to expand the scope and complexity of the project.
In simplified terms, cleanup of the pit is
proposed to be accomplished with "remote" technologies. That means
using robots and a mobile 37,500-square-foot retrieval building,
mounted on skids, for sorting waste and delivering it to a nearby
84,600-square-foot treatment building. Waste that exceeds 10
nanocuries of radiation per gram would be treated, and the
remainder would be returned to the pit.
melter would treat the most radioactive waste by spinning contents
at extremely hot temperatures - several thousand degrees centigrade
- turning them into a glass-like substance, and placing them back
into sealed containers for eventual disposal at an approved nuclear
Cleanup methods have been developed to
handle the mixed types of waste in Pit 9, Fitch said, but never at
the scale required for the pit.
treatment technology for Pit 9 represented an experiment, the
subcontractor approached the DOE with the fixed-cost concept. Says
Trevor, "They said we have this great proven technology. Let us
clean up your site."
She said she hopes Lockheed
Martin Corp. will use its vast resources to ensure that its sister
companies can work out their differences to move
The Snake River Alliance, a veteran
anti-nuclear watchdog nonprofit group, believes the DOE should not
have agreed to a private, fixed-cost cleanup of Pit 9. Given the
project's unprecedented nature, alliance officials believe a public
agency should oversee the cleanup to ensure it is done
"I think all of the parties share some
of the blame," said Beatrice Brailsford, a Pocatello alliance
activist. "This is a case of government naiveté meets
corporate greed. What we're left with, potentially, is a job that
doesn't get done."
writes in Boise, Idaho.
* Receive a copy of the GAO's Pit 9
report (GAO report RECD-97-180) by calling Ned Griffith at the
Office of Public Affairs, 202/512-5073, or by writing to: GAO, Room
7149, 441 G St. NW, Washington, DC