Valerie McCain, a Bechtel National Inc. senior vice president and director, since 2018, of its massive project to build a nuclear waste vitrification complex at the U.S. Energy Dept.'s former weapons complex in Washington state, died suddenly on March 26 “after a short illness,” the company announced on its project site.  

Bechtel did not disclose her age or the nature of her illness. 

At the Hanford waste site in Richland, McCain had supervised completion of the one-of-a-kind project set to immobilize low level nuclear waste and the first testing of one of its two 300-ton waste melters—building on years of development by a now 2,200-person team from the company, subcontractors and site partners, as well as DOE and other federal and state agencies.  

“Val was an exceptional human being and led the Vit Plant team in achieving some of the most challenging and exciting milestones in the project’s history,” Bechtel said in its release. “She modeled high integrity, compassion and drive to make a difference in the world.” 

The project mission is to tackle the court-mandated cleanup of a site described as the most radioactively and chemically toxic spot in the Western Hemisphere.

Bechtel is design, construction and commissioning contractor for the Hanford project, which began more than 20 years ago as the first industrial-scale process to dispose of 56-million gallons of waste dating to World War II stored there. The complex has not been without controversy and cost—at least an estimated $17 billion to date—with technical challenges and shifts in direction, and more to come. 

McCain was named in January as one of ENR’s 25 Newsmakers for 2022.

Bechtel said her successor as vitrification plant project director now is Brian Hartman, a company senior vice president and 40-year veteran who had been corporate manager of engineering and technology and project execution manager. The firm said for the past year since his May 2023 appointment, he also managed collaborative efforts to design a new launch facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida supporting theArtemis Mission, and he had previously led operational oversight of the Hanford project.

McCain is Remembered

In comments on a LinkedIn site noting McCain's death, former colleagues noted remembrances of her leadership.

“We know unanticipated issues will arise when we do things that have never been done before at this scale and complexity,” McCain told ENR previously. “I am proud of the team’s resolve and determination in addressing challenges and advancing the mission.”  Bechtel said the firm last month received “the highest-ever rating for the project’s performance from [DOE].” 

Joining Bechtel in 1990 as an environmental scientist and cost engineer, McCain managed projects such as DOE’s new uranium processing facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the multibillion-dollar upgrade of a 60-year-old Canadian aluminum smelter and the Pueblo, Colo., plant to destroy defense chemical weapons. She also was Bechtel regional manager of engineering, procurement and construction functions, with oversight of projects in North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the company said.

"Val invested in people and relationships and made everyone around her better. She earned your trust and respect not just with her exceptional capabilities, but also with her genuine care, conscientiousness and selflessness," said Brendan Bechtel, Bechtel chairman and CEO. "it showed in the results she inspired ...  on project after project, most notably at WTP. We will miss her leadership and her friendship even more." 

McCain also served on boards of industry and community groups, including the Energy Facility Contractors Group, Tri-City Development Council, STEM Foundation and Columbia Industries, which provides employment services and life-skills training to people with disabilities. Council President Karl Dye noted her "inspirational leadership” in comments to the Tri-City Herald.

Bechtel and the McCain family have created a memorial fund with the Three Rivers Community Foundation in Kennewick, Wash. to sponsor scholarships or contribute to nonprofits with missions that were important to McCain. Contact the foundation at office@3rcf.orgor or 509-735-5559