The Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management will cut contractors some slack when it comes to work deadlines missed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a policy that became official last week.
The nuclear cleanup office “will continue to evaluate COVID-19 impacts on the ability of contractors to perform required work,” according to the formal “COVID-19 Remobilization Framework and Site-Specific Template.”
The 27-page document, signed June 4 by DOE Senior Adviser for Environmental Management William (Ike) White, directs managers at the agency’s 16 nuclear cleanup sites to make a list of missed contract milestones and a “path forward” for finishing the work on an adjusted schedule. The documents should lay out the impact of delays on contractor fees. No date for submission or approval of such plans is listed.
A similar site evaluation, absent the language on fees, is also required for all missed regulatory deadlines or permit conditions, the Energy Department said.
Nearly all Environmental Management locations kept only skeleton crews on-site for about two months, from late March to late May, in order to slow the potential spread of novel coronavirus 2019 infections. During this period only minimal tasks, usually those necessary to protect public health, safety, and the environment, continued. Most employees stayed home, either working remotely or collecting paid leave.
The Environmental Management document is a more detailed version of the 14-page framework that DOE published in May. Both outline a four-part plan for returning employees to their jobsites while enacting changes – such as physical distancing, wearing face coverings, and routine temperature checks – designed to keep people safe.
The process starts with Phase 0, planning and workplace modifications, and advances to Phase 1, initial recalls of workers doing either high-priority or low-risk jobs who don’t require much personal protective equipment – most notably one-use Tyvek suits.
In Phase 2, work requiring PPE will resume if there are adequate supplies. Other employees whose work is best done on-site and senior level personnel not recalled during Phase 1 could also report. During Phase 2, access to lunch rooms and workout facilities will be relaxed and the ban on nonessential travel will be lifted.
Finally, in Phase 3, on-site staffing could return to near pre-COVID levels if local and regional infection trends remain favorable. Regular travel can resume – although not necessarily to COVID-19 “hot spots,” according to the framework.
Even in Phase 3, some people in high-risk groups can still be granted permission to work remotely, DOE said.
Depending on site needs, “each phase may have one or more stages and it is anticipated to take some time (weeks) to fully implement the phase,” according to language in the June 4 remobilization framework.
A DOE spokesperson would not specifically say if DOE has timeframes in mind for the stages. But the pace is “based on risk analyses that will take into account several factors,” including health data, remaining state and local restrictions, and facility preparedness, the official said.
White makes the final call on advancing from one phase to another, the document says.
Despite time lost on-site due to the coronavirus, White still expects several major nuclear cleanup goals to be completed during 2020, he told the Energy Facility Contractors Group (EFCOG) annual meeting during an online presentation on June 3.
Startup of the Salt Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. as well as decommissioning at the East Tennessee Technology Park, the former uranium enrichment complex at the Oak Ridge Site, will still occur this year, according to a summary of White’s comments.
Coming into this year, the major Oak Ridge remediation project was supposed to be completed in July and the SWPF was expected online in April.
As of today, most DOE cleanup sites have started Phase 1 recalls, with Idaho National Laboratory cleanup operations beginning Phase 2.
There are only a couple of cleanup sites that might not yet be approved to start recalling workers on-site: The Separations Process Research Unit in New York and the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California. The Energy Department has previously said contractor Amentum has effectively finished field work at SPRU. Aside from activities such as air monitoring it is not clear how much physical work has been happening lately at Satna Susana, although that will change later this summer when 10 buildings are torn down.
The Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project in Utah counts many heavy equipment operators and truck drivers among its workforce, and it never shifted to minimal operations.
The Office of Environmental Management said this week it has 23 “confirmed active” cases of COVID-19 within its complex. The prior week it said there were 33 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. A DOE spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry on whether it was changing the manner in which it reports infections.
The Savannah River Site, which houses operations for both Environmental Management and the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, reports 32 cases of COVID-19 on its website, but says 23 of those have recovered and returned to work.
The Hanford Site in Washington state also posted a notice on its website Thursday indicating a worker has tested positive, which is believed to be the 13th case reported there.
Hanford Plans to Continue in Phase 1; West Valley Begins Remobilizing Workers
Hanford will continue in Phase 1 through the week of June 15, Site Manager Brian Vance said in a Thursday memo.
“Although the majority of our workforce remains teleworking, we have continued the steady workforce increase over the past two weeks since we began remobilization on May 26, with about 25% of the overall workforces currently reporting to offices and site locations,” Vance wrote. The total federal and contractor workforce at Hanford numbers about 11,000.
Phase 1 remains focused on construction operations that can be done with little PPE, Vance said. All the vendors at Hanford are carrying out various tasks that set the stage for expanded operations, he said.
For example, Mission Support Alliance is conducting “mask fit” classes at the Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) Federal Training Center, Vance said. Washington River Protection Solutions is continuing construction of the pad that will house the Tank Side Cesium Removal System, he added.
After receiving DOE approval, the West Valley Demonstration Project in New York state is starting Phase 1.
The “safe and deliberate approach to the phased restart of operations” began June 8, a DOE spokesman said by email Wednesday. Decommissioning and demolition were largely suspended this spring due to the pandemic.
Cleanup contractor CH2M HILL BWXT West Valley suspended normal operations on March 23 under federal precautions. It has done only “mission-essential” tasks since then, mostly regulatory compliance inspections and environmental monitoring, according to DOE.
Roughly 300 people are employed at West Valley. About 25% continued to work inside the fence from late March. This should increase to 40% by the end of Phase 1, which translates to roughly 120 people.
West Valley is situated on 200 acres within the 3,300-acre Western New York Nuclear Service Center in the town of Ashford. Nuclear Fuel Services operated a fuel reprocessing plant at the site between 1966 and 1972.
The remediation vendor team comprised of Jacobs and BWX Technologies is operating under an $836 million contract that started in August 2011 and runs through June 2023. The work involves environmental remediation, tearing down old facilities, and carrying away nuclear waste.
Environmental cleanup staff at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York is also now starting Phase 1
Portsmouth-Paducah Personnel to Get Callback Notices This Week
Many employees of the facilities overseen by the Department of Energy’s Portsmouth-Paducah Project Office (PPPO) received notices this week to report back to their worksites after months away due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first wave of homebound federal and contract personnel on June 15 will begin reporting back to the three locations overseen by the office, according to a June 4 memo from Energy Department PPPO Manager Robert Edwards. The facilities are: the Portsmouth Site in Ohio, the Paducah Site in Kentucky, and the Lexington, Ky., PPPO headquarters office.
This week officially marks the start of Phase 1 of remobilization, with notices going out, followed by reporting to the jobsite next week, Edwards said.
A count of personnel at three PPPO locations was not immediately available. The largest contractor at Portsmouth, cleanup provider Fluor-BWXT, probably employs about 750 hourly employees. Perhaps 150 of those were on-site during the past couple months, estimated John Knauff, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-689 at Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Mission Alliance, the support services contractor comprised of North Wind and Swift and Staley, will probably recall its 100-person workforce in Phase 1, Knauff said. There is speculation Portsmouth will spend “at least” two weeks in each of the incremental phases, Knauff said.
The Portsmouth union official said thus far he has not heard of any large-scale resistance about returning to work due to virus fears, although Knauff said some of his union members do have misgivings.