A U.S. watchdog agency has denied two bid protests of a large federal contract award to a Bechtel-led team, clearing the way for it to take over construction and operation management of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico—the key U.S. underground disposal site for transuranic nuclear waste.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office denied the protests over the last week by two losing bidders for the US Energy Dept.contract, which will be worth up to $3 billion over ten years.

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.

GAO officials confirmed agency denial of one protest from unsuccessful bidder National TRU Solutions, a team led by Huntington Ingalls Industries. It included Atkins, according to sources familiar with the procurement. The officials also said GAO denied a protest by another unsuccessful contender, Carlsbad Operations Alliance LLC, a team led by Westinghouse with Veolia Nuclear Services as a partner.

Other bidders, which did not protest, include what sources close to the procurement said is a team led by Jacobs with BWX Technologies, and one led by Fluor Corp. that includes Amentum.

BWXT and Amentum currently make up Nuclear Waste Partnership, a joint venture that has managed WIPP operations since 2012 and did not compete for the new contract. That team has been operating at WIPP under a contract extension from DOE.

The National TRU Solutions protest alleged that DOE's evaluation of key personnel and past performance was unreasonable, and that the agency improperly evaluated the role of the awardee’s proposed affiliate and engaged in improper discussions, said Kenneth Patton, a GAO managing associate general counsel, in an email.

Carlsbad Operations Alliance alleged that DOE’s review of key personnel, past performance and management approaches was unreasonable and challenged the agency’s best-value determination—also contending that the selection involved "improper communications with the awardee concerning an agency-level protest."

For both protests, GAO said it “considered each of [the protest] allegations, and found them to have no merit.”

The agency did not release further public detail of its decisions but said that at a future date it would post website versions with “proprietary or source selection sensitive information” redacted.

A DOE spokesperson told ENR that the contract transition "is underway as of Nov. 9 and would be completed by March 31, 2023.

“Tularosa Basin Range Services ... is committed to executing this mission," said a Bechtel spokesperson. "We look forward to joining the team at WIPP."


Protests Can Be Continued

The protesting bidders could not be reached, but Edward Goldstein, another GAO managing associate general counsel, said they "can decide to pursue their protests at the Court of Federal Claims."

Under the contract, Bechtel will manage WIPP operation and construction projects that include completion of a new ventilation system at the repository that is buried in a salt deposit more than 2,150 ft underground.

Work on the system began in 2018 after two radiological leaks at the site in 2014 halted operations for about three years and continues to limit them. The releases were linked to a mispackaged waste container sent from DOE's Los Alamos, N.M. nuclear site that ruptured, contaminating the area and elevating radiation levels nearby. 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 additional potential work to expand repository capacity.

A GAO report issued in March said 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.

Bechtel also is management contractor at the DOE Pantex site near Amarillo, Texas, and at the Y-12 National Security complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., following the agency's June decision to extend its contract.

At those sites, bid protests triggered cancellation of a combined site management award to a Fluor Corp.-led team and issuance of a revised procurement.