- On May 14, 1997 at 10:47 p.m., a chemical
tank exploded in a deserted factory at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation
outside Richland, Washington, the final resting place for more than two-thirds
of the nation's high-level waste.
- The explosion was extraordinarily powerful,
blowing down steel doors and shattering windows throughout the building.
The blast shredded the steel liner of a 1,500-gallon chemical drum laced
with plutonium, sending the heavy metal lid hurtling through the ceiling
where it ruptured in a water main and burst through the roof. Water poured
into the room, steamed down four flights of stairs and flooded the nearby
parking lot. A yellow-orange plume of toxic gases drifted over the Hanford
site and nearby communities.
- The explosion occurred less than 20 yards
from a silo holding nearly 10 tons of plutonium, one of the largest caches
of this deadly material in the world. If the blast had breached the plutonium
silo, the destruction would have rivaled Chernobyl. By all accounts, the
scene in the wake of the explosion was chaotic. Plant managers were giving
conflicting orders, emergency response codes were ignored, workers were
ordered into contaminated areas without protective gear, other agencies
were kept in the dark for hours and the public highway that runs near the
site remained open to traffic.
- At first, some suspected sabotage. The
Department of Energy (DOE) has spent tens of millions of dollars to protect
the plant from terrorist attacks. Black-suited guards with machine guns
slung over their shoulders constantly patrol the site, which is ringed
by electronic monitors, TV cameras and razorwire fences. However, it soon
became clear that the explosion was not the result not of a bomb but of
mismanagement by Hanford's lead contractor. Fluor Daniel, a wholly owned
subsidiary of the Irvine, California-based Fluor Corporation, a booming
global construction company with annual revenues of more than $10 billion.
- An internal DOE assessment of the near-disaster
skewered Fluor for numerous safety and reporting violations, noting that
the chemical tank had not even been inspected for over six months despite
signs that such an "autocatalytic explosion" was possible. Lloyd
Pipe, a former acting manager of the plant, calls the DOE review "downright
ugly." "We failed in some key areas of responsibility,"
he says. "Across the board, our actions in the wake of the explosion
did not meet our expectations." Before the internal review was released
to the public, Fluor's lawyers edited out key findings relating to possible
violations of federal law, risks to human health and the extent of off-site
- Gerald Pollet, director of the Hanford
watchdog group Heart of America Northwest, sums up the incident more succinctly:
"Fluor Daniel violated every rule in the book, put thousands of lives
at risk and then, in the great Hanford tradition, tried to cover it all
up and accuse the workers and nearby residents of mass hysteria."
For many long-time Hanford watchers, the explosion at the plutonium finishing
plant wasn't a surprise. Environmentalists and seasoned DOE employees
contend that Fluor snared the lucrative Hanford contract not because of
its expertise in environmental cleanup, but due to the firm's inside connections
to the Clinton administration and the six-figure contributions it made
to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
- Hanford first burst into the nation spotlight
on August 9, 1945 when the Fat Boy bomb, armed with plutonium concocted
at Hanford, incinerated Nagasaki, killing more than 39,000 people. Over
the next 40 years, Hanford's atomic engineers churned out 54 tons of plutonium,
65 percent of America's nuclear arsenal. The engineers were proud of the
bombs they had created, but much more cavalier about the toxic debris of
the arms race. At Hanford, only the highest-level nuclear waste--thick
plutonium sludge--was tucked away into 177 underground tanks, each the
size of Carnegie Hall. Nearly half of these tanks now are leaking plutonium
in a steady drizzle toward the aquifer that lies beneath Hanford, while
others are bubbling away in a dangerous and uncontrollable "self-boil."
Most of the toxic waste--and estimated 400 billion gallons of contaminated
liquid--was simply dumped, poured and sprayed right into the soil at Hanford,
just meters from the Columbia River.
- Fluor won the five-year, $5 billion contract
to supervise the cleanup of Hanford in the summer of 1996, after a string
of disastrous accidents cost Westinghouse, Hanford's previous contractor,
its contract. The government awarded Fluor the contract over the objections
of several senior DOE officials who felt that the company was not experienced
enough for such a complex and dangerous operation. "Fluor is basically
a big construction company with a get-in and get-out quick mentality,"
says a longtime DOE staffer. "But Hanford is something else entirely.
This is a 100-year cleanup where the slightest mistake could spell disaster
and put a million lives at risk."
- Fluor's recent experience with the DOE
was another cause for concern. In 1993, the company was awarded a contract
to manage the Fernald nuclear site outside Cincinnati. Fluor agreed to
clean up the toxic residue at this former uranium processing plant, which
houses more than 20 million pounds of radioactive materials, for $2.2 billion.
But in Fluor's four years at Fernald, the company has been accused of massive
overbilling, shoddy work performance and false record keeping. Fluor was
also cited by the DOE for more than 1,000 serious safety violations, ranging
from lax rules to exposure to radiation.
- The allegations against Fluor surfaced
in a remarkable series of stories by investigative reporter Mike Gallagher
in the Cincinnati Enquirer beginning in February 1996. Gallagher's exposés
prompted a DOE investigation, an audit by the General Accounting Office
and congressional hearings. Fluor's Fernald operation has been hit with
a record $34 million in fines for worker injuries, poor job performance
and bad bookkeeping. Most disturbingly, Fluor has been cited for violating
guidelines on nuclear criticality, the potentially explosive buildup of
radiation that occurs when tanks of radioactive waste are stored too close
to each other. DOE officials knew Fluor's record at Fernald when they
awarded it the contract to oversee operations at Hanford. How, then, did
a company with Fluor's reputation for shoddy and reckless work end up with
such a lucrative and dangerous deal to oversee the cleanup of what the
DOE itself calls "the single largest environmental and health risk
in the nation?"
- The answer is political connections.
At the onset of the Clinton era, Fluor recognized the potential for huge
deals involving the cleanup of hazardous waste sites on federal properties.
For help, the company turned to Peter S. Knight, a key Washington D.C.
fixer with close ties to Al Gore. For 13 years, Knight served a chief
of staff for Gore during his tenure in the House and Senate. Knight ran
Gore's failed 1988 presidential campaign and headed his 1992 vice-presidential
run. After the election, Knight was named to Clinton's transition team
where he oversaw appointments of sub-cabinet positions at the Environmental
Protection Agency and the Interior and Energy departments, including the
choice of Thomas Grumbly as assistant secretary of energy. It was Grumbly
who awarded the Hanford contract to Fluor, gave the company money to design
part of the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage plant and
resisted demands that the company's troubled Fernald contract be canceled.
- Knight left the transition team in January
1993 to join the powerful Washington law firm, Wunder, Diefenderfer, Cannon
and Thelen. Knight was startlingly upfront about using his ties to Gore
and other high-ranking Clinton officials as a way to recruit clients.
In a solicitation letter one client, Knight boasted he was "very familiar
with DOE and close to Secretary Hazel O' Leary's new team." Knight
soon became one of the outfit's top lobbyists, racking up an impressive
roster of high-profile clients including Disney, Lockheed Martin and Molten
Metal Technologies. In his first year, Knight registered more than a million
dollars in billings. His standard fee was between $10,000 and $25,000
- By the end of 1994, Knight and his clients
were poised to make a killing off of his pal Gore's Reinventing Government
Initiative, which proposed to "streamline" government programs
and hand over some functions to the private sector. The scheme to privatize
many of the DOE's most sensitive operations was particularly lucrative.
The DOE offered more than 200 different projects, which private firms would
be handsomely paid to run government operations like the cleanup at Hanford.
For corporations such as Fluor and Lockheed, this was a no-lose situation:
fat government contracts and minimal oversight. "These contracts are
one of the great scandals of the Clinton era," says Pollet of Heart
of America Northwest. "There's no financial risk no matter how badly
you botch the job."
- The $5 billion Hanford "integrated
management" contract was the biggest prize of all. Thirteen big firms
put in bids for the Hanford project, led by defense giant Raytheon. Knight
pleaded Fluor's case. It was a hard sell, given the company's track record
at Fernald. But as a final inducement, Fluor sent a check to the DNC for
$100,00 on May 3, 1996. (Fluor gave the Democrats a total of $203,000
during the 1995-96 election cycle.) A few weeks later, Grumbly awarded
Fluor the contract. "Everyone thought Raytheon had the deal sewed
up," says Todd Martin from the Hanford Environmental Action League.
"Raytheon certainly did. They'd already opened an office near Hanford.
When DOE gave the contract to Fluor, it came a total shock."
- Fluor assumed control of operations at
Hanford on October 1, 1996. The company was supposed to have developed
an integrated work safety plan prior to that date. After requesting several
extensions, Fluor finally produced in January 1997 what one DOE staffer
described as a "mish-mash of confusing and conflicting guidelines."
It wasn't until the following September, nearly a year after being awarded
the contract, that Fluor finally produced an acceptable safety plan. But
over that year, the company's safety record was riddled with accidents,
including explosions, electrical fires, injuries and chemical spills.
- "They haven't met with the community,
haven't consulted with public interest groups and don't listen to their
workers," says Tom Carpenter, a lawyer with the Government Accountability
Project in Seattle. "Many of Fluor's managers are former military
men who remain mired in a Cold War mentality. They're addicted to secrecy
and dismiss safety questions as a secondary concern. This is a non-union
company that isn't used to listening to its workers and isn't comfortable
with even the slightest criticism. When workers speak up, they're simply
- Carpenter has represented numerous Hanford
workers who have risked their careers to expose dangerous operations at
the site. This summer, Carpenter filed a whistleblower complaint with
the Department of Labor on behalf of seven pipefitters who were fired by
Fluor after they objected to the use of faulty valves on a pipe used to
carry high-level nuclear waste from one storage tank to another.
- How much will it cost to mop up the mess
at Hanford? The Department of Energy says $40 billion over the next 30
years. But other economists estimate that the figure may soar to as high
as $300 billion in an operation that could drag out over the next 75 to
100 years. Over the past decade, more than $10 billion has been spent
at Hanford with almost nothing to show for it. Fluor is already more than
$100 million over budget, and the DOE, in an internal review in November,
rated the company's performance in key areas as "marginal" (the
equivalent of a D). Fluor even submitted bills to the DOE for two lobbyists
hired to weaken Washington state's hazardous waste laws.
- Despite this sordid record, the DOE has
no plans to terminate the contract. In fact, Fluor seems poised to cash
in on performance bonds that could net the company a $54 million bonus
for its first year At Hanford and, according to sources inside the DOE,
the company may be in line to get a five-year extension of the contract
worth another $5 to $7 billion. Meanwhile, in September 1997, congressional
investigators subpoenaed 64 boxes of records from the DOE and Fluor regarding
the Hanford contract. Knight and Grumbly have been forced to undergo grueling
depositions. They both deny any wrongdoing. The Republicans in Congress
have used the scandal as a way to bludgeon Gore.
- There's a joke going around Hanford these
days. What has Fluor done in a year that Westinghouse couldn't do in 10?
Make Westinghouse look good. To those who live downwind from Hanford,
the punch line carries a morbid edge. "I'm afraid to go out there
now," says Carpenter. "Fluor's management of the place is simply
incompetent. At Hanford, the slightest screw up can have the deadliest
- From the January 11, 1998 edition of
"In These Times" Support the Constitution by supporting alternative
- Get involved--contact Hanford Watch:
Phone Numbers: 503-232-0848 or 503-287-6329
- UPDATE: (AP) 1/9/98-A Hanford reactor
leaked more than 36,000 gallons of water contaminated with radioactivity,
a federal contractor said Thursday. (January, 8, 1997)
- The water leaked from a filtration system
inside a building at the N Reactor, which produced plutonium for nuclear
weapons. Most of the water poured into an underground sump at the site
on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. But as much as 2,000 gallons leaked
outside and some was absorbed into the ground. The site is several hundred
yards from the Columbia River.
- The water was contaminated with strontium,
cesium and tritium. Two workers got radioactive material on their boots.
- Date 13 Jan 1998 19:30:07 GMT From "Dr.
Richard X. Frager" <email@example.com