Two bid protests are likely to delay the U.S. Dept. of Energy's final award of a multi-year management contract worth up to $3 billion to a Bechtel-led team to manage construction and operation of the country's key underground nuclear waste disposal site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, sources tell ENR.

DOE announced the cost-plus-award-fee contract July 11 to Tularosa Basin Range Services, a Bechtel single-purpose subsidiary, for a four-year term with six one-year extension options. The contractor team also includes Los Alamos Technical Associates as a small business subcontractor, was selected as “best value to the government,” the agency said.

WIPP, the world's first underground repository for permanent disposal of transuranic radioactive waste, has operated since 1999 at a site 26 miles east of Carlsbad, N.M.

DOE said there were five bidders for the contract but has declined to disclose their names or the identities of team members.

If finalized, the Bechtel team would succeed Nuclear Waste Partnership, a joint venture between contractors Amentum and BWXT that has managed WIPP operations since 2012. Its contract was set to expire on Sept. 30, with a DOE site spokesman saying previously that the transition would occur before the end of the year. An Amentum spokesman previously said Nuclear Waste Partnership would not rebid.

But the bid protests by two unsuccessful bidders within the last two weeks could push that into next year. A DOE spokesman in Washington, D.C. confirmed the protest filings to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, but would not comment further on whether Nuclear Waste Partnership’s contract would be extended or related to other transition schedule changes “until the protests are resolved.”

The two filings give GAO until Nov. 9 to rule on the protests, so it is not clear what steps DOE will take in the interim. Agency officials have said at community forums that the WIPP workforce would not be affected, according to local reports.

One industry source close to the competition who declined to be identified says “the protests will almost certainly delay the transition. GAO has 100 days to rule on the protests which puts us into November. It would be remarkable if GAO did not take the full time allotted.”

He says the contract of the incumbent Amentum-BWXT team “will very likely be extended,” possibly for up to one year, but “with the caveat that [DOE] can terminate early for any reason,” such as if protests are resolved quickly. But the source says DOE would not likely “announce or confirm any extension until very close to when the current contract expires.”

The award schedule also hinges on whether the GAO decision requires “corrective actions,” the source says, and how DOE responds. The agency “won’t set a transition start date until all of that is resolved,” with year-end holidays posing an added complication, he adds.


No Details From Protesters

A GAO spokesman confirmed the latest protest from bidder Carlsbad Operations Alliance LLC on Aug. 1 challenging the Bechtel selection. Sources knowledgable about the bid say Westinghouse leads the team, with Veolia Nuclear Services Solutions a team partner. Company spokespersons declined comment on the protest or the competition.

Also protesting is bidder National TRU Solutions, which sources and media reports say is a joint venture led by Newport News, Va.-based Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII). Other partners could include Atkins or BWX Technologies, sources told Weapons Complex Monitor.  An HII subsidiary and BWXT are teamed as the contractor managing cleanup at DOE's Los Alamos National Laboratory site, also in New Mexico, about 350 miles from WIPP.

An HII spokesperson for the firm’s nuclear work did not respond to ENR queries on its contract bid or reasons for the protest.

The protests are not “public documents,” the GAO spokesman says, noting that they contain a “contractor’s proprietary business information related to the procurement [and] source selection information.” He adds that GAO “has issued a protective order ... to prevent the disclosure.” 

If the award proceeds, Bechtel would manage WIPP projects that include building a new ventilation system at the transuranic waste repository buried in a salt deposit about 2,150 ft underground.

Work on the system began in 2018 after two radiological leaks at the site in 2014 halted site operations for about three years and keeps them currently limited. The releases were linked to a mispackaged waste container sent from the Los Alamos site that ruptured, causing site contamination and elevated radiation levels in the nearby environment. Bechtel was part of the team managing Los Alamos operations until 2018.

The new ventilation system is intended to boost airflow by about 270% at the WIPP site to enable full operation to resume, including work to expand capacity.

A GAO report issued in March, however, noted the ventilation project that was set to finish in November at a total cost of $288 million, was revised by DOE last year to cost about $486 million with completion pushed back to January 2026. GAO also noted that a new utility shaft being built at the site to complement the system is also facing cost overruns and schedule delays.

The report cited site contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership's "inexperience managing construction projects," among other reasons for the project completion issues, which also include workforce staffing gaps and impacts from COVID-19. GAO specified the need for a required DOE “corrective plan” to look at "root causes" of the project cost and schedule problems, to which the agency concurred in its response.

GAO also noted the pressing need for site disposal expansion, citing "a large amount of transuranic waste at sites around the country" and concern "whether the new space will be ready in time to prevent an interruption of disposal operations." About 22 DOE nuclear sites ship waste to WIPP.

Bechtel noted its 44 years of experience in work at DOE sites in New Mexico, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. The firm remains site management contractor at the DOE Pantex site near Amarillo, Texas, and the Y-12 National Security complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., following the agency's June decision to extend its contract after bid protests resulted in cancellation of an award to a Fluor Corp.-led team and rebid of a revised contract. Bechtel also has been building a waste treatment complex at DOE's massive Hanford site in Washington for nearly two decades, a project nearing the first stage of completion on facilities to immobilize low-level waste and prepare it for secure onsite disposal.