The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad had been under new management for just 16 months when two of its most severe and costly accidents occurred.
Within an eight-day span in February 2014, a salt truck caught fire in the mine 2,150 feet below ground, forcing workers to evacuate — crawling on hands and knees through the smoke — and a hazardous waste drum packed with radioactive materials burst, contaminating parts of the plant and dozens of workers with radiation.
The contractors operating WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the burst drum had been mispackaged, ultimately were liable for the incidents that shut down the waste plant. Those contractors include two corporations that are partners in managing both facilities: BWXT and AECOM.
Last week, Lynchburg, Va.-based BWXT, in partnership with Virginia-based Stoller Newport News Nuclear, or SN3, was awarded a $1.4 billion contract by the U.S. Energy Department to clean up widespread environmental contamination and remove Cold War-era radiological waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory. The work largely involves packaging and shipping waste drums containing tools, soil and other materials contaminated with transuranic elements, such as plutonium, south to WIPP for permanent storage.
The 2014 incidents in New Mexico might have been the most serious involving BWXT, a longtime federal contractor at several Energy Department sites across the nation, but they weren’t the company’s only problems.
Federal officials have cited the firm with numerous nuclear safety violations — the most recent notice coming just days ago. BWXT also has faced allegations of retaliation against workers and whistleblowers, as well as accusations that it failed to protect workers from contamination in sites from Texas to Idaho. The company’s history raises questions about whether it should be managing cleanup of radioactive waste at Los Alamos.
Just two other companies bid for the environmental management work, which will be BWXT’s sixth multibillion-dollar federal contract in over a decade.
Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program at the Albuquerque-based nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center, called the contract award to BWTX “endemic” to the Department of Energy’s problems.
“Essentially, DOE is a captive of their contractors,” he said. “There are a relatively a small number of contractors that do weapons work on one hand and cleanup work on the other.”
Hancock also argues that there’s a conflict of interest with BWXT holding the lab cleanup contract while also managing WIPP. “The contractor at LANL and the contractor at WIPP have a mutual incentive to help the other make a profit, as opposed to requiring them to do a more careful job that could cut into BWXT profits,” he said.
A Department of Energy spokesperson did not immediately answer questions about the contract award.
BWXT spokesman Jud Simmons, in response to questions about the company’s fitness to handle the lab cleanup work, provided a company news release.
“BWXT is very gratified to be selected to perform this very important work by the Department of Energy,” President and CEO Rex D. Geveden said in the statement. “Our nuclear environmental management credentials are particularly well suited to the complex, multi-year projects we will undertake at Los Alamos with our partner SN3.”
As part of a consortium called Los Alamos National Security LLC, BWXT has helped run the Los Alamos lab since 2006. Other members of the consortium are AECOM, Bechtel and the University of California. In a joint venture called Nuclear Waste Partnership with AECOM and AREVA Federal Services, BWXT has run WIPP since 2012.
Nuclear Waste Partnership and Los Alamos National Security lost more than 90 percent of their annual performance-based bonuses, or nearly $65 million collectively, following the WIPP shutdown in 2014. The Department of Energy also informed LANS that it wouldn’t renew the consortium’s lab management contract. The agency put the contract out to bid two months ago, and a new operator is expected to take over Los Alamos’ operations in October 2018.
In 2017 alone, the Los Alamos lab has had a series of troubling incidents involving mislabeled and mishandled hazardous materials, some of which led to worker injuries and contamination, as well as several violations of a safety program meant to prevent a runaway nuclear reaction.
Federal documents show that BWXT also has faced worker safety violations and allegations of retaliation outside New Mexico:
• In 2016, the Energy Department conducted an investigation into a March 2015 accident at the Portsmouth DUF6 Conversion Plant in Piketon, Ohio — operated by a BWXT company until February 2017 — where depleted uranium is converted to uranium oxide. A system malfunctioned, splashing workers with potassium hydroxide. A report cited failures in worker training and emergency response. More than $207,000 was withheld from the company’s bonuses for 2015.
• Charles Dalton, a BWXT worker, filed a complaint in 2016 with the Energy Department’s Idaho Operations Office and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, raising concerns about how BWXT inspects its products. He alleged someone could be “hurt or killed because of something our company did wrong.” After voicing his concerns, Dalton said, managers publicly criticized him for the disclosure.
• A decade earlier, a handful of similar complaints were filed by David Isham, a subcontractor for Bechtel BWXT Idaho LLC, who alleged his supervisor had asked him to alter inspection reports for waste shipped from Idaho to WIPP, and that he was fired after calling attention to the issue. An Energy Department hearing officer later dismissed the claim.
• Clint Olsen, a BWXT employee at the Pantex Plant northeast of Amarillo, Texas, filed a complaint in 2005 alleging retaliation related to the handling of a classified hard drive. BWXT appealed the complaint.
• In 2007, BWXT Y-12, which operated the Y-12 Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Texas Pantex Plant until 2014, was fined $137,500 for violating nuclear safety rules.
• In 2006, BWXT Pantex, which is the nation’s primary facility for the final assembly, dismantlement and maintenance of nuclear weapons, was issued a $110,000 fine for violating nuclear safety rules. At the time, Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, wrote that he was disappointed Pantex hadn’t undertaken safety improvements until after problems were identified by independent oversight officials.
A $123,000 fine had been issued the previous year involving an explosive that cracked while it was being dismantled, indicating deficiencies in procedures and training.
In BWXT’s final performance review at Pantex in 2014, six months after the WIPP incident, the company was rated highly overall by the Energy Department. It was awarded 90 percent of its possible performance fees, only losing points for issues with the plant’s fire protection system.
In fact, the company has earned high performance awards, over 90 percent, dating back to 2006.
On Thursday — just months after BWXT received a glowing review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its Nuclear Operations Group facility in Lynchburg — the commission issued the company a notice of three apparent violations at the commercial operation, where it converts highly enriched uranium into nuclear reactor fuel and manufactures other components for the U.S. government.
According to a letter from the commission, inspectors in July found an excessive amount of a uranium isotope accumulated in vessels at the facility. Nuclear sites are required to moderate the amount of uranium in one area, because an excess of the material can lead to a nuclear fission chain reaction.
“Although there was no actual safety consequence to the public,” Mark Lesser, director of the commission’s Division of Fuel Facility Inspection, wrote, “there was sufficient material available … for a criticality to occur. The potential safety consequence to the public is assessed as high.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or email@example.com.