SPOKANE, Wash. - Mike Lawrence, manager of the most contentious cleanup effort on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, resigned in April, saying he couldn't continue as a "figurehead and mouthpiece" for a project so far out of his control.
Lawrence left BNFL, Inc., a private company that was hired to clean up Hanford's nuclear waste, just days after the company announced it would need $13 billion to turn 54 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste into glass logs.
The new price tag was over $6 billion more than originally estimated.
"I was shocked it had gone up the amount it had," Lawrence said in his resignation letter. He added that he was in the difficult position of defending decisions he had no say in or that were made before he joined the project.
Lawrence was no neophyte at Hanford. He was the federal Energy Department's Hanford manager from 1984 to 1990, when he signed the first major Hanford cleanup agreement with Washington state's Department of Ecology and the EPA.
Lawrence joined BNFL, an American subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels, in 1997, at Los Alamos, N.M., and took over the Hanford project in April 1999, nearly a year after the company estimated it could do the waste-to-glass project for $6.9 million.
When, less than two weeks after Lawrence's departure, the company again raised its estimate - this time by $2.2 billion more - U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had had enough. He fired the company.
"BNFL's proposal was outrageously expensive and inadequate in many ways," Richardson said in a tersely worded statement, May 8.
The endless cleanup
The debacle is a significant - some say dangerous - setback for detoxifying Hanford. Two-thirds of the nation's high-level radioactive waste is stored in underground tanks at the central Washington plutonium complex. Some 67 of the 177 tanks leak. A million gallons of nuclear brew have leached into the groundwater and is moving toward the Columbia River (HCN, 9/1/97: Radioactive waste from Hanford is seeping toward the Columbia).
BNFL was hired in the mid-1990s to put an end to this era of contamination. The company was to finance, design and build a "vitrification" plant to melt the waste at thousands of degrees and turn it into glass. Its unusual contract stipulated that taxpayers not lay out a dime until the first glass log rolled out of the plant, sometime around 2007, after which the logs, encased in steel, would be stored until the radioactivity dissipated.
Many in Congress and some watchdog groups said the glass-steel log plan was a bad idea from the start because private financing would significantly ratchet up the cost.
Geoff Harvey, BNFL spokesman at Hanford, said the uniqueness of the plant - "It's the first-of-a-kind facility" - and the fact that it's the largest vitrification plant in the world, drove up the cost of borrowing money.
Although other vitrification plants are operating in France, the United Kingdom and Savannah River, Ga., none deal with as much waste. In addition, no one kept good records of what went into Hanford's waste tanks, which makes the dynamics of melting this particular nuclear stew unknown.
"This really shows the inability of the Department of Energy to manage," says Greg deBruler, Hanford technical consultant for Columbia River Keeper, a citizens' advocacy group. "They should have seen this coming. We've always said in order to make vitrification successful, you have to start small. The BNFL proposal, even at $6.9 billion, was a Big Mac."
Federal officials at Hanford say that regardless of Lawrence's departure and the firing of BNFL, they plan to keep the cleanup on schedule. That means the first waste must be turned into glass by 2007, and 10 percent of the liquid brew must be treated by 2018. The Energy Department says it will use completed design work by BNFL for 30 percent of the cleanup, and bring in a new contractor by January.
"There's any number of very competent firms we believe could perform the work," says Energy Department spokesman Tom Welch.
Washington state officials and citizen groups remain skeptical. They say delays, overspending and missed deadlines remain the hallmarks of Hanford's cleanup.
"With the BNFL contract terminated, some deadlines will be missed, and that adds to ongoing concerns we've had about the Department of Energy's commitment to the project," says Washington Gov. Gary Locke. He pressed the Energy Department to allow a federal judge to supervise cleanup of the nuclear-waste storage tanks. Watchdog groups say the cleanup schedule is pathetic, and some worry action will be too late.
"Waste is leaking from the tanks right now and moving toward the Columbia River," says Hyun Lee, an attorney with Heart of America Northwest. The current schedule, he adds, "really puts the river in harm's way."
Lee, 29, says completion of the Hanford cleanup is "not in my lifetime."
Ken Olsen is a writer living in Spokane, Wash.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Heart of America Northwest, 1305 Fourth Ave., Cobb Center, Suite 208, Seattle, WA 98101 (206/382-1014);
- Department of Energy, 509/373-5647; www.hanford.gov;
- Gov. Gary Locke, P.O. Box 4002, Olympia, WA 98504-0002 (360/902-4111).
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ken Olsen