Three key technical issues have been resolved for the Pretreatment Facility at Hanford’s vitrification plant, an important step toward restarting construction of the plant. Courtesy Bechtel National

RICHLAND, Wash. —  Speculation that a key leader of Hanford’s vitrification plant was transferred because he blew the whistle on the project is just wrong, the employee said.

William “Bill” Hamel sent a letter March 6 to the plant contractor saying about the paperwork verifying the quality of steel used in the massive construction project was missing or inadequate.

Hamel was the Department of Energy project director for the vit plant until this week when he started work on another Hanford job.

He said he was caught by surprise Tuesday by a news release from the office of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., questioning whether Hamel was transferred because he raised concerns.

Earlier in the day Wyden told Energy Secretary Rick Perry that it was a “whistleblower story.” Perry was answering questions from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Not even, kind of, sort of close,” Hamel told the Herald late Tuesday.

No one from Wyden’s office discussed the news release with him, Hamel said. “It really doesn’t represent my views,” he said.

During the hearing Wyden said that it did not seem like a coincidence that Hamel was transferred to a new job shortly after sending the letter to Bechtel.

He asked that Hamel promptly provide details to the committee about “this potentially devastating safety issue.”

He also asked Perry to make Hamel available to the committee to ask him, without interference, about the issue.

Hamel told the Herald that if requested to talk to senators, he will.

The plant, which is expected to cost more than $17 billion, is planned to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The March 6 letter said the missing steel quality documentation is “a potentially unrecoverable quality issue.”

Wyden said that in plain English that meant that the plant might not open.

Hamel said the letter was part of ongoing DOE oversight of the plant, under construction since 2002.

The letter “was strongly worded to get them to focus,” Hamel said.

It had the desired effect on Bechtel, he said.

Since receiving the letter, Bechtel, which had earlier identified the issue and discussed it with DOE, has started to turn in the paperwork on structural steel quality.

Bechtel is expected to have all the paperwork ready for DOE review before the end of the month.

The company released a statement Friday saying that it had documentation that demonstrated that nuclear-grade structural steel meets project requirements. Structural steel that would support equipment or parts of the building dealing with radioactive waste is required to meet a higher safety standard.

Bechtel is continuing to complete its review of documentation for a few of the remaining commercial-grade steel items. Those could be items used in parts of the plant, like staircases, without a direct safety bearing on radioactive waste processing.

DOE will review the documents and decide whether standards are met.

If they are not met, there are options to correct the issue short of ripping the steel out of the plant. Bechtel could go back to the vendor and ask for documentation or — in a more unlikely scenario — it could analyze the material to verify its quality, including the alloys it includes.

Quality assurance has been an ongoing issue at the vitrification plant project.

At least three DOE Office of Inspector General audits, including audits in 2012 and 2013, questioned quality assurance programs at the Hanford vitrification plant.

Quality assurance was among the multiple alleged issues that led Bechtel National and AECOM, its subcontractor, to pay a $125 million settlement in 2016 in a Justice Department case. Bechtel and AECOM admitted no wrongdoing.

In written testimony given to the Senate Armed Forces Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on March 14, the Government Accountability Office said in a footnote that it was in the process of completing a report on the vit plant’s quality assurance program.

DOE is preparing to start glassifying low-activity radioactive waste as soon as 2022.

Construction of the Low Activity Waste Facility at the plant could be completed in June, and work is transitioning at parts of the plant from mostly construction to start up and commissioning.

Both Bechtel National and the DOE Office of River Protection, which is responsible for the vit plant, brought in new top management in late 2017, with both organizations saying they were picked to lead the project as it entered a new phase.

Hamel’s reassignment is the latest personnel change explained in those terms.

DOE’s top Hanford managers announced in a joint memo on March 14 that Thomas Fletcher, the DOE Richland Operations Office deputy manager, would become assistant manager of the vitrification plant as “it is moving into a new phase with an increasing emphasis on start up and commissioning to prepare for the initiation of waste treatment.”

Hamel, after five years in the vit plant oversight position, has been named assistant manager for safety and environment at the Richland Operations Office, the memo said.

Hamel, a DOE senior executive, said it was a lateral transfer for him that had been in the works for some time. He knew he would be transferring to the Richland Operations Office from the Office of River Protection before he signed the letter, he said.