Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 33 No. 28
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July 15, 2022

Bechtel wins new $3B WIPP prime contract from DOE

By Wayne Barber

The Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management chose a Bechtel National-led joint venture to manage the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., starting as soon as October.

As of Friday morning, none of the losing bidders had protested the award to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). One source said DOE’s debriefings to losing bidders, usually a precursor to any protests, were not expected until at least the week of July 18.

In a press release this week, the federal agency announced the award of the potential 10-year, $3-billion contract to Reston, Va.,-based Tularosa Basin Range Services, LLC. The new contract has a four-year base period with six one-year options. The Bechtel National single-purpose entity will utilize New Mexico-based Los Alamos Technical Associate as its subcontractor, DOE said. 

Tularosa Basin Range Service will do business as Salado Isolation Mining Contractors (SIMCO), Bechtel said in a Tuesday in its own press release. The winner beat out four other bidders, DOE said.

“The mission to safely dispose of defense-related nuclear waste is vitally important for protecting people and the planet,” Dena Volovar, Bechtel National executive vice president, said in the release. 

Bechtel said it expects to release more information about operation of the Carlsbad, N.M., area facility once it receives a notice to proceed, from DOE. 

Barring a successful contract challenge, the Bechtel team will succeed Nuclear Waste Partnership, a team of Amentum and BWX Technologies. The Nuclear Waste Partnership team has held the business since October 2012 under a contract currently valued at $2.7-billion and scheduled to expire in September.

The DOE issued a request for proposals for a new WIPP follow-on contract in June 2021. 

One executive with a DOE small contractor told Weapons Complex Monitor he was surprised by the Bechtel award for various reasons. 

In past years, Bechtel bosses privately expressed indifference about landing the WIPP business, the executive said. There are also Bechtel’s “well-publicized problems” with cost increases and schedule delays over time at the Waste Treatment Plant at the Hanford Site in Washington state.

The same small contractor exec also expressed surprise the Nuclear Waste Partnership was kept around by DOE until 2022 after an accident eight years ago that would set back the national transuranic waste program for years. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation’s only underground disposal site for defense-related transuranic waste.

A February 2014 underground radiation leak from a drum of transuranic waste incorrectly packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which a Bechtel-led team was managing at the time. The drum burst open underground at WIPP, contaminating portions of the mine and forcing suspension of transuranic waste disposal for nearly three years.

At the time of the underground accident, Bechtel was senior industrial partner in Los Alamos National Security, then the prime contractor for the Los Alamos National Laboratory and in charge of both active nuclear weapons work and legacy nuclear-weapons cleanup. 

Bechtel got some good news in May when the National Nuclear Security Administration canceled a follow-on contract for management of major nuclear-weapons production sites in Texas and Tennessee, allowing the Bechtel-led incumbent to stay on for at least two years. 

Absent a successful contract challenge, Bechtel will face a long and challenging to-do list at WIPP.

DOE wants WIPP to raise shipment rates to closer to the 700-to-800 annually recorded during the mid-to-late 2000s, prior to the February 2014 radiation leak that contaminated parts of the salt mine, including the current Panel 7, Reinhard Knerr, DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office manager, said in a recent town meeting. 

So far during fiscal 2022, which started Sept. 1, WIPP has disposed of only 150 shipments, far below the goal of about 300, Knerr said last week. 

In addition, the new WIPP prime will be expected to complete key infrastructure projects that could enable the facility to potentially operate beyond 2050. The new Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System is chief among them. It is designed to triple underground airflow to about 540,000 cubic feet per minute, a level that should again allow simultaneous mining, maintenance and waste disposal. Nuclear Waste Partnership replaced the original construction subcontractor after work got off to a slow start during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Meanwhile, DOE anticipates increasing demands on WIPP from increased transuranic waste as a result of enhanced plutonium pit production at Los Alamos as well as new pit operations at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. 

In public reports, WIPP managers have also noted the federal government might one day decide the Carlsbad operation could be the destination for transuranic-type waste from the West Valley Demonstration Project, which DOE has heretofore designated as non-defense-related. 

Meanwhile, there is the long-running challenge of attracting and keeping sufficient staff at the remote WIPP site near Carlsbad, as detailed in a March GAO report. “[R]ecruiting and retaining technically capable staff in the WIPP area is a long-standing, well documented issue that the contractor and DOE headquarters have had limited success in resolving,” GAO said in the report.

Or as the one industry executive put it:  “The end of the world equals Carlsbad.” 

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