Tuesday, February 16, 2016

DOE Inspector General Piles On: Bechtel CAP and DOE Oversight Deficient at the Vit Plant

The Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General (IG) recently released an audit report* on deficiencies in Bechtel’s Corrective Action Program (CAP) at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP aka the Vit Plant) where Bechtel is the prime contractor.  The report also described deficiencies in the DOE Office of River Protection’s (ORP) oversight of Bechtel.

With one exception, this IG report is not about safety culture (SC) per se, but it does discuss two key artifacts that reflect the strength of a SC: the effectiveness of the CAP and the size of backlogs.**

The audit found that the Bechtel CAP “was not fully effective in managing and resolving issues.”  Specifically, some required issues were not managed and tracked in the CAP, corrective actions were not implemented in a timely manner (Bechtel did not make any of its timeliness goals) and Bechtel failed to follow through on implementing or sustaining prior CAP improvement initiatives. (pp. 1-2, 5)

The findings were not news to the ORP.  In fact, they are consistent with ORP’s 2013 audit of Bechtel’s Quality Assurance program.  At that time ORP directed Bechtel to make CAP improvements but as of the current IG audit, such improvements had not been fully implemented. (p. 2) 

CAP backlogs are also a problem.  Backlogs of condition reports increased from 2013 to 2014, as did the age of corrective actions. (pp. 4-5)

The audit report does have one direct tie to SC, noting that Bechtel identified weaknesses in its SC in 2014, including concerns about management not valuing a rigorous CAP. (p. 6)

And the auditors didn’t let ORP off the hook, stating DOE “did not ensure that all technical issues and issues identified through self-assessments were entered into the [CAP].  Finally, [DOE] did not ensure that previous Bechtel initiatives to address [DOE] implementation problems were fully implemented or sustained.” (p. 6)

The report closed with three straightforward “fix-it” recommendations with which ORP management concurred.  In their concurrence letter, ORP reviews the actions taken to date and concludes “Bechtel has strengthened the WTP Project’s nuclear safety and quality culture.” (p. 11)

Our Perspective

The report does not inspire confidence that Bechtel can upgrade its CAP (while trying to move ahead with Vit Plant design and construction) or ORP will ride herd on them to ensure it happens.  In fact, the report is consistent with a bevy of earlier assessments and evaluations, many of which we have reviewed on Safetymatters.  (Click on the Vit Plant label for more details.)  ORP’s assertion that Bechtel has strengthened its culture is possibly true, but they began from an unacceptably low starting point.

Early in my career I was hired as a Quality Control manager for a telecom manufacturer.  The company had major problems with its flagship product and I was soon named to a task force to investigate them.  On my way to our initial meeting, I met up with a more senior employee and told him how I looked forward to our task force identifying and fixing the product’s problems.  He turned to me and said “The first three didn’t.”  Welcome to the world.

*  U.S. DOE Inspector General, “Audit Report - Corrective Action Program at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant,” OAI-M-16-06 (Feb. 2016).

**  As we have discussed elsewhere, two other key artifacts are decision-making and compensation.  From the WTP history we have reviewed for Safetymatters, it appears Bechtel (and by extension, DOE) decision-making does not effectively address either the tough technical challenges or programmatic issues at the WTP.  The Bechtel contract now includes some modest incentive compensation for SC performance.  We discussed that program on Dec. 29, 2014.


  1. • Character

    An inescapable fact is that the character of an industry/ technical community is largely a reflection of the character of its regulators, and, of course, vice versa . Competence, integrity, compliance, and transparency or their lack seldom exist on only one side of an industry-regulatory interface .

    “It takes two to Tango.”

  2. • Extent of Intellectual Corruption

    An inescapable fact is that lack of competence, integrity, compliance, and/or transparency at any location/ site/ unit/ level of an organization has never been shown to have been confined to that entity. Moral pathogens propagate.

    Mediocrity penetrates most interfaces, but excellence is often confined to the stovepipe it started in.

    “There is a Gresham’s law of safety culture. The bad drives out the good.”

  3. Why DOE believes that BNI can deliver this plant through pre-startup reviews of a QA program with its recurring findings of "ineffective" (aka Non-Compliant with 10 CFR 820) eludes my experience base.

    If there is ever an open, critical review of the history prior to starting up the plant it seems very likely that a finding of "indeterminate quality" (ala Plant Zimmer in the bad old days) will be inescapable. The what will DOE do? Why not do that now?


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