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Producer Rich Bonin Responds To Criticism Of '60 Minutes' Nuclear Waste Story

On April 30, "60 Minutes" ran a story on the radioactive liquid waste sitting in underground tanks in Hanford, Washington, and the government's efforts to process the waste. The piece, "Lethal and Leaking," was critical of efforts by the Energy Department to deal with the problem. Correspondent Lesley Stahl also criticized Bechtel, the contractor charged with building the plant to treat the waste. According to the producer of the piece, Rich Bonin, the Energy Department and Bechtel are "joined at the hip."

On its Web site, Bechtel has posted a response to the "60 Minutes" piece (PDF). "60 Minutes misrepresented well-known facts, confused basic issues, and drew unwarranted conclusions that could mislead the public and decision makers if left unchallenged. It is remarkable that with all the investigative resources at their disposal, 60 Minutes failed to shed light on the real issues that have made the [Waste Treatment Plant] such a challenging project," according to the four-page document.

Michael R. Fox, writing an editorial in the Hawaii Reporter, also criticized the piece. (The Hawaii Reporter prints all editorials submitted.) "Not mentioned by [Lesley] Stahl are the 30 years of exaggerations about Hanford which exist to this day," he writes. "Likewise, local and state media have failed to address the exaggerations, as have state and national political leaders, and of course the environmental movement so quick and breezy with wild assertions. It was too much to hope that the prestigious Stahl and her staff would begin undoing the nonsense even after all these years. Regrettably, she didn't since scare stories still sell."

I asked Bonin to respond to the criticism. Because it's a complex issue – one of the section headers of the Bechtel response is "The submerged bed scrubber vessel" – I asked him to first to focus on how confident he was in the story his team put out, and on the challenges of putting the story together. He then addressed one specific issue in the Bechtel response.

"Any story on '60 Minutes' is hard to do and complicated and in the beginning there's always a mountain of information I have to get my arms around," he said. "I get to spend weeks, sometimes months, researching a story. We don't begin taping or scripting until we've got it figured out." This story was particularly challenging, he said, because it was so technical. "You can't present a broadcast that will make sense to engineers and not the rest of the public," he said. If he wasn't completely confident in the story, he added, "we wouldn't have run it."

Bonin traces his confidence to the fact that "everything we reported is backed up either by investigators from [the Government Accountability Office] or Congressional investigators or investigators from the state of Washington, the governor of Washington, and independent audits, some by the Energy Department's own outside auditors."

Now, the specifics. Among its criticisms of the piece, Bechtel included the following:

The impact of changing seismic criteria on the project has long been a matter of public record. The original ground motion criteria for the design were reviewed by numerous independent experts and provided to Bechtel by [the Department of Energy] as part of its contract in 2000. Bechtel did not independently evaluate those criteria but advised that any substantive increase in predicted ground motion would have a significant impact on the design and therefore the overall cost and schedule of the project.

One reviewing agency, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, requested more information about the characteristics of the soils under the [Waste Treatment Plant]. After considerable debate among experts, [the Department of Energy] decided to commission a study in early 2004, which resulted in the department's decision to increase the seismic requirements by nearly 40 percent.

Because its original plant design was conservative, Bechtel did not have to remove or redo any construction work. But prudence dictated that we review tens of thousands of design documents to ensure they meet the new standard. That's not a mistake—it's the price of getting things right as scientific understanding of a complex issue has evolved.

Bonin took issue with Bechtel's characterization that what it did was "not a mistake."

"[The Government Accountability Office] thinks it was a mistake. Members of congress think it was a mistake. The governor of Washington thinks it was a mistake. The mistake was proceeding with construction without settling this issue," he said.

Bonin read me a passage from a January 2006 study conducted by an outside consulting firm, LMI Government Consulting, which was hired by the secretary of energy. The parties involved, he read from the document, "had been debating the seismic issue since July 2002…Unfortunately, it took two years for the significance and ultimately very expensive issue to come to a head…Instead of proactively addressing the seismic issue head on and resolving it as soon as possible, [Department of Energy] managers chose to debate and delay a solution." (The ellipses are Bonin's.)

Bechtel's response says, "Because its original plant design was conservative, Bechtel did not have to remove or redo any construction work." That's true, said Bonin, but only if your definition of "construction work" is limited to foundation and walls. He noted the words of the Government Accountability Office's Gene Aloise, featured in the piece: "What they do have to fix is the internal components of the building. Hangers, piping, vessel supports, all of this interior of the building...That all has to be re-engineered."

"They were alerted before they poured one bag of cement that the technology had changed," said Bonin. "Rather than confronting the issue, [the Department of Energy] chose to debate this for two years. Having to halt construction, lay off people, and go back and redo some of this stuff is adding about 800 million to the latest price tag and is delaying completion of the project two to four years."

"You asked me if this kind of story was hard to do," he continued. "It's hard because it is technical, and you get answers like this that are some of the truth but not the whole truth, and you've got to figure that out. And then you've got to completely master all of this information, and the nuances of critics, so you can boil it down in a way that's accurate."

He also drew a comparison between his work and Bechtel's. "I don't commission a camera crew, and spend $100,000 shooting a "60 Minutes" story, until I know my basic facts are accurate," he said. "At the end, if the basic thesis doesn't hold, I'm going to be in trouble."