Lethal And Leaking

Deadly Waste Has Leaked Into Washington Groundwater


"In a building like this, you need to build it to ensure that it withstands whatever an earthquake may pose - if there is one - because we absolutely do not want a breech of this radioactive material in the atmosphere," says Gene Aloise of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm.

But here's what 60 Minutes has learned: that the Energy Department and the contractor, Bechtel, went ahead with the plant knowing their seismic standard might be off. Just as construction was about to begin in July 2002, an independent safety board sent a letter, warning the department.

"Energy debated with the safety board for almost two years over the standards," says Aloise.

"Ok, let me understand this. This is brought up as an issue in 2002. Instead of going back right then, they debate until 2005, during which time they're building the building?" Stahl asked Aloise.

"They're building the building," he replied.

They were building it using the wrong seismic standard. Because they did factor in some margin of safety, the contractor, Bechtel, has told the Energy Department there is no restructuring required on the foundation or the walls.

But Aloise says what they do have to fix are the internal components of the building. "Hangers, piping, vessel supports, all of this interior of the building, where the technology's going to rest. That all has to be re-engineered," he explains. "They have to re-do tens of thousands of designs."

The seismic miscalculation is costing at least $800 million and a two- to four-year delay in completing the building. This practice of pushing ahead with construction before the engineering is complete is known as "fast track."

"The people in the state of Washington who are living with this thing, they don't want it to slow down, they want it to speed up," Stahl remarked.

"But it doesn't work in our view on complex, technical nuclear facilities like the ones in Hanford," Aloise replied.

Asked what he would tell the people of Washington, Aloise said, "That we need to do it right."

Fast track was singled out as a major problem five years ago when 60 Minutes last reported on the cleanup.

Gary Jones, a GAO investigator in 2001, told 60 Minutes that they had rushed ahead with construction of this building at a similar site in Idaho before the designs were finished. We asked about it back then.

"You're saying they went ahead and built the building and then when they were finished making all the changes, the equipment wouldn't fit in the building?" Stahl asked Jones in the report five years ago.

"The equipment for this particular process would not fit into the building as designed," Jones replied.

Five years ago, 60 Minutes was assured the government had learned from its mistakes and things were finally under control. And yet, since then, costs have gone through the roof, up more than 150 percent, and the start date for making those glass logs has slipped seven years, to 2018. The seismic error was only one of several snafus.