The U.S. Energy Dept. has cancelled a $13-billion, 10-year contract awarded just a few months ago to a team led by BWXT Technical Services and Fluor Federal Services to manage millions of gallons of radioactive waste stored underground at its Hanford, Wash., former weapons site—confirming plans for a major scope expansion and lengthy reprocurement but sharing few details.

DOE alerted agency and contract employees on Dec. 23, and has confirmed to ENR, that it now will seek new bids for a single contractor to operate both its nuclear waste tank farm and initially, its multi-billion-dollar waste treatment plant set for startup soon.

That “vitrification” complex, under construction by Bechtel National for nearly two decades , now is nearing the first stage of completion next year on facilities to immobilize low-level waste and prepare it for secure onsite disposal. Technical issues suspended work several years ago on processes to treat high-level waste.

The change comes as both houses of Congress on Dec. 21 approved a $2.6 billion budget for Hanford for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The bill instructs DOE to make startup of the tank waste vitrification plant “its highest priority.”

The original contract “no longer represents the most beneficial acquisition strategy for the Hanford mission,” an agency spokesman told ENR. DOE said the government's "best interest" would be "to have a single contractor focused on integrated completion of the inter-related tank closure and direct feed low activity waste missions at Hanford.”

While the vitrification complex construction has cost an estimated $17 billion to date, the agency has not said what the new management contract value would be nor revealed its exact scope, timeline or makeup of likely bid teams.

Contract Unpacked

Earlier this year, DOE took initial steps to hire a separate contractor to operate the vitrification plant, issuing a request for information in April from interested companies

But reprocurement of the now combined operations contract follows DOE’s decision in August to suspend the original tank farm management award made in May to the BWXT-Fluor team, noting need for what it said was “corrective action.”

That step followed bid protests filed to the U.S. Government Accountability Office by losing bid teams led by Jacobs and by Amentum, the former government services unit of AECOM that was spun off in 2019. GAO dismissed the bid protests on July 23 after DOE's decision to re-examine the contract strategy, a GAO officials told ENR

DOE said at the time that Washington River Protection Solutions LLC, a different Amentum-led consoritum that has been the tank farm manager since 2008, would remain at the site under a contract extension until Sept. 30, 2021. The agency reconfirmed that extension on Dec. 29.

Dealing with the tank waste has long been one of Hanford's biggest challenges, exacerbated by the complexities and long delays in developing and completing the vitrification plant.

DOE says the project was 65% complete in October. Work is far enough along on processes to separate tank farm waste and start low-level waste treatment to have a single operations contractor.

Project Next Steps

There are 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks, a legacy of World War II plutonium production. Low-level waste will be sent in 9,000 gallon batches to the vitrification plant to be turned into glass logs for disposal.

The agency expects to release an RFP for the integrated contract during the first half of 2021, but did not provide a more specific RFP release date or proposal due date. Vitrification of the waste is expected to begin in two or three years.

Under a consent decree with the state and the US Environmental Protection Agency, vitrification must start by December 2023, but COVID-19 impacts could extend that. “We believe it is too early in DOE's process to fully understand the impacts" of the contract change, says a Washington Dept. of Ecology spokesman. "For DOE to simply state as they did 'it is in the best interest of the government to have a single contractor' - we won't know what that means for a while.”

Details of the bid protests were not made public until Dec, 22 when GAO released its decision to deny reimbursement of protest costs to the former AECOM team, which included Atkins Nuclear Secured and Westinghouse Government Services. The agency said the protest claimed the BWXT/Fluor team “created the appearance of impropriety and/or obtained an unfair competitive advantage” by hiring a former DOE manager in Richland, Wash. to help prepare its proposal and that DOE evaluated proposals unequally.

"The decision to cancel the contract and rewrite it is a perfect end to the seemingly unrelated [bid protest] situations, with protesers able to bid on the new contract and the government able to cancel the first contract without having to pay any sort of liabi.ity," a federal government contracts attorney told ENR.

Despite the tank farm award delay, two other large Hanford contact awards take full effect on Jan. 24.

A team led by Amentum, Fluor Federal Services and Atkins Nuclear Secured starts work under a 10-year contrtact valued at up to $10 billion for environmental cleanup work in Hanford's central area that is heavilty plutonium-contaminated. A consortium of Leidos, Centerra Group and Parsons Government Services will take over Hanford utility and road support, and security and emergency services sitewide under a contract valued at up to $6 billion over four years.

Gender Bias Settlement

But the U.S. Labor Dept. on Dec. 22 delivered some added news to CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., now a unit of Jacobs. which has held the central-area cleanup contract for a decade that now is transitioning to the Amentum team.

DOL determined that it paid female employees less than male employees in the same administrative and technical positions, with the firm agreeing to pay $450,124 in back pay and interest to 214 women and will boost other compliance measures.

Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs launched a class member locator to identify other workers who might have been affected by the discrimination during 2017.

The company did not admit wrongdoing but declined further comment to ENR.