Key project at Fernald plagued by problems

Design flaws, excessive costs cited in Energy Dept. report

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A U.S. Department of Energy investigative team at Fernald found scores of financial, design, construction, testing and safety problems in a pilot project for encapsulating radioactive wastes.

The December report says Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. fast-tracked the project, resulting in design flaws; hid cost, design and schedule problems from the Energy Department; made repeated and costly design changes; and submitted unrealistic cost and construction schedules.

The special team also said alternative methods for cleaning up the waste should be considered because of the pilot plant's numerous problems and ballooning costs.

The team was made up of eight Energy Department employees, three Energy Department support contractors and three consultants with expertise in the areas of project management, vitrification design - construction and cost estimating. They were assembled to investigate pilot plant problems detailed in a November Enquirer report.

After reviewing the pilot plant project, the investigative team repeatedly stated that the numerous safety, planning, cost and construction concerns highlighted in its report needed to be addressed to prevent personnel injuries and additional waste of taxpayers' money.

And because the pilot plant and the proposed full-scale plant are schedule-driven: ''The implications of this situation is a continual brush fire mode,'' the report says. ''Crises (sic) management is the rule of the day, and advance planning to avoid problems seldom takes place because of continuing emergencies.''

The report by the special investigative team details problems that could lead to another delay in the startup of a pilot project to encapsulate 20 million pounds of radioactive sludge into pieces of glass, a process called vitrification.

The plant is being built by Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO). The first phase of the pilot plant operation, testing non-radioactive waste, already has been delayed twice.

The 48-page report was submitted to Energy Department headquarters in December and obtained recently by The Enquirer.

''(The Energy Department) and FERMCO need to conduct a complete review of the cost benefit analysis for vitrification, including variations of different alternatives that could result in significant savings in time and money,'' the report said. ''There is the potential for numerous alternatives to be developed and evaluated.''

In response to questions about the report, a letter signed on behalf of FERMCO President John Bradburne said, ''Recently, the DOE has suggested the possibility of utilizing other alternative methods for dealing with a portion of the waste. FERMCO is currently investigating these alternatives in conjunction with DOE.''

FERMCO has spent more than $35 million in taxpayer money to design and build the troubled pilot plant, and now estimates the final cost of the project will be more than $42 million. The company's original 1993 estimate was $14.1 million.

Last month The Enquirer revealed that FERMCO and its parent company, Fluor Daniel Corp. of Irvine, Calif., have cheated the government out of millions of dollars and jeopardized the safety of workers and neighbors at the Fernald site. At that time The Enquirer also reported there were significant design problems with the pilot plant.

Earlier this month the newspaper also reported that structural defects have been ignored and covered up in the construction of the pilot plant. The Energy Department's investigation substantiates many of the problems with the pilot plant reported by The Enquirer during the past several weeks.

Members of Congress called for the U.S. General Accounting Office to investigate The Enquirer's findings. That probe now is under way.

The Energy Department's investigation of the pilot project was ordered by Thomas Grumbly, the department's acting undersecretary, after he read a Nov. 27 Enquirer article revealing cost, construction and safety problems that were expected to delay the completion of the project by up to 17 months.

At that time, Mr. Grumbly accused FERMCO of hiding the project's problems from the Energy Department, allowing the company to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in performance fees that might otherwise not have been awarded.

Mr. Grumbly's investigative team found that FERMCO has spent millions of dollars fixing, and sometimes refixing, problems that occurred because the company ''fast-tracked'' the project. Among the most serious problems and concerns facing the project, according to the Energy Department team, are:

Piping designed to trap and remove radioactive ''off-gas'' from the plant may clog because it's too long and has too many bends in it.

Pipes bringing the wastes into the plant may get clogged with chunks of debris in the waste stream.

Operations and maintenance personnel have little or no access to the plant's processing equipment and system.

A lack of involvement by operations, maintenance and safety personnel from the outset of the pilot plant project.

A poor records management system.

Problems in planning and construction may lead to major design and structural changes before and after the planned testing of both non-radioactive and radioactive waste. Serious problems could arise because FERMCO purchased equipment for the pilot project before studies and designs were actually completed.

In its report, the team raised more than a hundred safety, reliability, equipment availability and maintenance questions about the pilot plant. FERMCO officials told the team in December they were attempting to correct the problems, but no completion date was specified, according to the report.

Jack Craig, the Energy Department's Fernald area manager, declined requests to be interviewed regarding the problems identified by the investigative team.

Reporting, construction trouble

The investigative team found that many of FERMCO's monthly reports to the Energy Department about the pilot project were insufficient and didn't detail the specific trouble areas.

''As a result, unless project specific data is requested (by the Energy Department), the monthly data reports completely mask the (pilot) project data, thus making the data of limited value for project management,'' the report said.

The investigators also found that FERMCO projected unrealistic costs and schedules when it initially planned the vitrification project.

FERMCO also never developed contingency plans for cost and scheduling problems and provided the Energy Department with ''overly optimistic'' initial cost and schedule estimates. ''This led to major assumptions (by FERMCO) which were unverified and not identified with their associated risks.''

The investigators also found that FERMCO buried the pilot plant problems so far down in its reporting system, that Energy Department officials had no way of knowing the scope of the trouble unless FERMCO pointed it out.

As late as July 1995, FERMCO officials continued to deceive the Energy Department's vitrification project manager and its team leader by falsely assuring them that the problems would have no impact on the project's scheduled completion date, the report revealed. Two months later, FERMCO admitted the project had serious problems that resulted in a lengthy delay.

Scores of design changes for the pilot project also have led to many problems, the investigators found.

''The significant number of design changes that have occurred and appear to be continuing are also indicative of problems within the project,'' the report said. ''The (Energy Department) project manager noted these concerns with the FERMCO project manager on many occasions.'' Design reviews were conducted, the report showed, ''but are also noted as inadequate.'' And ''lack of sufficient involvement by other (FERMCO) project organizations has also led (and may continue to lead) to rework situations.''

One of the most serious concerns of the investigators, according to the report, is FERMCO's effort to ''fast-track'' the remaining studies, testing and designs that need to be done involving running radioactive waste through the pilot plant system (Phase II) and the building of a full-scale vitrification plant (FRVP).

FERMCO's proposed schedule ''is indicating activities on both the Phase II and the FRVP are being planned in such a manner as to result in major project risk,'' the investigators warned. FERMCO's schedule ''indicates considerable overlap between the (pilot plant) and the (full-scale plant). The work plan . . . design states in numerous instances that data from the pilot plant is essential to design and procurement of the (full-scale plant). The two positions are in direct opposition.''

The report warned that if FERMCO proceeds as planned, ''care must be exercised to assure an honest and adequate explanation is provided as to why (pilot plant) data is no longer a prerequisite for the (full-scale plant).''

The letter signed on behalf of FERMCO President Bradburne said, ''The faster that we can complete the pilot plant and gain the necessary information from its operation, the faster we can undertake the full-scale project and achieve the goal of remediation. The 'fast track' schedule for the Pilot Plant will not cause any reduction or compromise whatsoever in safety standards and procedures.''

Design concerns

The investigators also expressed concern that basic safety, construction and design steps that should have been addressed earlier in the design and building process were now more difficult, if not impossible, to change or fix.

Several of those concerns, noted in the report, were:

A lack of provisions for clearing the buildup of solids in the primary off-gas line. FERMCO's line is about 75 feet long and has several bends, while other similar projects nationwide use lines that are much shorter, sometimes only 10 feet.

No backup blower for the primary off-gas vent from the melter where the waste will be turned into the glass-like substance. ''Failure of the off-gas blower could result in the escape of (radioactive) gases from the melter into the building.''

Radiation shielding of the temporary storage tank needs to be evaluated.

Labels on some valves are incomplete, too small or do not exist.

Personnel must climb ladders during freezing, inclement weather in the uncovered secondary radiation containment area.

Insulation used on the melter might be carcinogenic. ''This issue needs to be resolved to assure providing necessary personnel protection.''

A key processing area contains numerous instances of poor maintenance planning: major valves located too close together for access; valves are too high to reach; lights are too high to replace bulbs; valves and pumps are in awkward positions. In addition, there is no obvious, easy method of correcting these situations.

On a tank that will hold radioactive material, valves are located directly beneath the center, ''probably one of the more radiation-intense areas in the facility.''

There are no apparent provisions for installing a permanent safety rail (at the top of the melter). Such a rail will be necessary to prevent an accidental fall.

In its report, the investigative team noted its limitations in assuring the reliability, availability and maintenance of the equipment and machinery already in place at the site. Usually, the investigators said, ''engineering studies, tests or historical operating data for essential components'' would be reviewed prior to equipment being purchased and installed in such a project.

''However, since the (pilot plant) equipment is already on hand and the facility is essentially complete, the standard reliability studies are not applicable,'' the report said. ''In addition, major system or equipment redesigns are also out of the question. At this stage of construction and startup there is little that could be done in a cost-effective manner unless a gross deficiency were discovered.

''Maintainability is based on the ability to access equipment for repair or replacement; having adequate manuals and procedures, ample spare parts, etc.'' according to the report. ''Again, because of the (construction) stage . . . most facility and process features are fixed and significant changes are not acceptable.''

Published March 25, 1996.