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.
There it 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 contract.
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. 30.
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 States.
"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 Falls.
"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 both.
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 overruns
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 mid-stream.
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 ultimately viable.
"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.
A plasma 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 dump.
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.
Although the 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 ahead.
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 correctly.
"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."
* Stephen Stuebner
Stephen Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.
You can ...
* 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 20548.