Fallout from the Big Crumble (so to speak)

| August 1, 2006

(UPDATED BELOW) (And, Megan, thanks for the Instalanche!)

I haven’t been terribly happy with Sen. Reid’s battle against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site over the years, but even I have to agree he’s got a good point here:

WASHINGTON (AP) – Sen. Harry Reid has a new argument against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump: The contractor building the repository is the same one on Boston’s troubled Big Dig highway project, where a falling concrete slab crushed a motorist to death earlier this month.

“If Bechtel can’t do a better job on the Big Dig than what they’ve done, I don’t see why they should be involved with Yucca Mountain,” Reid, D-Nev., told Nevada reporters in his Senate office Monday.

For decades, Bechtel’s name has been synonymous with large-scale/can’t fail engineering around the world. The Big Dig Crumble debacle may change all that for good — not because a freak accident killed an innocent person, but because the accident now looks more as if it were simply a matter of time than a rare set of circumstances. The more details that come out, the worse the whole project looks, as Gov. Romney (who is doing a bit of damage control himself) noted this past weekend (via Tom Brenner at the Patriot Ledger):

BOSTON – Leaking walls and falling ceilings may not be the end of the Big Dig’s troubles, says Gov. Mitt. Romney.

As he assumes control of the $14.6-billion project, Romney is predicting that ongoing safety inspections will reveal additional flaws.

‘‘Given the ceiling leaks and the slurry wall collapse, and then the ceiling panel collapse and concern with regard to jet fans, you have to think that when someone really carries out a full review they’re going to come up with more concerns,’’ Romney said….

‘‘It’s like peeling an onion,’’ Romney told reporters yesterday of the Big Dig problems. ‘‘You think you got the whole entity and you peel it and there is just more and more and more inside.’’

By the time this is all done, I’m not sure Bechtel’s reputation will ever be the same.

UPDATED (08/01/06): Henry Bowman in the comments pointed out that Sandia National Labs will replace Bechtel-SAIC as the Yucca Mountain lead as of this fall. The Department of Energy made that award over 6 months ago, which makes me wonder a bit why Sen. Reid chose to highlight the Bechtel-Yucca connection, given that construction hasn’t even started yet. On the other hand, reports and documents revealed to date indicate serious questions about the fundamental design of the Big Crumble, indicating a legitimate reason to wonder about Bechtel’s work to date.

More good observations down in the comments. And the rest of the Big Crumble postings are here. ..bruce..

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Category: Main, Project Management, Science, The Big Crumble

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (11)

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  1. Henry Bowman says:

    Strictly speaking, the [current] company tasked for the repository work is Bechtel-SAIC, a joint venture between Bechtel and SAIC. However, I believe that as of Oct 1, 2006, Bechtel-SAIC will be replaced by Sandia National Laboratories, which is operated by Lockheed-Martin.

    Other than upper management, it’s not clear just what the changeover will mean for the day-to-day work.

  2. D Lajaunie says:

    Bechtel’s reputation has been tarnished to a degree for a long time. Consider the 1991 US Embassy fire in Moscow during a Bechtel rehab, WMATA cost overruns on the DC subway project etc. Bechtel has become a huge bureaucracy feasting on change orders, delay claims etc. It’s axiomatic in most government construction work that troubled projects are often profitable projects. It’s rare for the government to collect on liquidated damages or sue against the performance bond for lack of contractor execution. It does happen occasionally, but not enough to modify the contractor’s behavior.

  3. Shannon Love says:

    Wow, I am surprised to find out Bechtel is the contractor on that monstrosity. They made their well deserved rep building huge projects out in the middle of nowhere and building them well. Could this be a result of to many political hands on the project? I wonder how much control actually had over matters such as quality inspection and hiring subcontractors.

  4. bfwebster says:

    Henry: thanks for the pointer; I found more information and will post it back up in the article.

    D: Bechtel must be good at keeping a low profile, since I lived in the DC area for nearly 8 years (6 of those right in the District itself) and wasn’t aware of their involvement with the Metro. On the other hand, the DC government itself is so disfunctional that they can make almost anyone else look good by comparison.

    Shannon: Actually, most of the complaints I’ve heard in the wake of the Big Dig tunnel collapse is that Bechtel had too little oversight, not too much. On the other hand, there have been other charges of the MTA dispensing patronage jobs to friends and family of the Mass state legislature (hence, the difficulty Romney had in firing Amorello prior to the tunnel collapse), so it may have been a bad combination all the way around. ..bruce..

  5. Paul Dietz says:

    Never mind the reputation of the contractor; the whole idea behind Yucca Mountain is flawed.

    It turns out to be cheaper, simpler, and all around easier to just stick the spent fuel rods (after a few years of decay in a cooling pool) into massive shielded armored casks filled with inert gas. These so-called ‘dry casks’ are rugged and very resistant to attack, and should last for centuries. The spent fuel produced by a nuclear reactor over its lifetime, stored in casks, will occupy less land area than the reactor itself.

    Eventually, something else will have to be done with the spent fuel (if only because the fission products will decay so much the plutonium is not protected against clandestine diversion), but by putting that time centuries into the future the present cost can be made negligible. Why spend gigabucks on a geological repository today when we can safely delay that expenditure for generations?

  6. bfwebster says:

    Paul:

    Thanks for the cogent observation. Not having much of a background in nuclear energy, I wasn’t aware of the alternative — but I’m almost always in favor of “cheaper, simpler, and all around easier” or, as my good friend Bruce Henderson (aka “Evil Bruce”) puts it, “Start out stupid and work up from there.” Given the available alternative, is Yucca Mountain going forward just out of sheer momentum? ..bruce..

  7. stan peterson says:

    Reid is a NIMBY and got himself elected appealing to other NIMBIES. Yucca mountain depository should go forward but in conjunction with advanced reprocessing, casking and eventual actinide burning and ultimate permanent storage.

    Besides if there were no Yucca Mountain the eco wackos would be yelling and screaming that there is no way to dispose of residual wastes.

  8. J Bowen says:

    You’ll all be happy to know that quite a few existing commercial nuclear power plants were built by Bechtel.

    A contractor is always supposed to build according to specifications. The purchaser has its own engineers who should have approved the specifications and supervised the quality throughout the life of the project, and of course it is they who control when and how much Bechtel gets paid over the life of the project. If they accepted crap and didn’t make Bechtel fix it, or made Bechtel take concrete or other supplies from favored vendors, or let Bechtel take draws to which they were not entitled, they screwed up.

    And don’t tell me you can’t find crooked pols in Boston or the rest of Mass.

    IOW don’t let the local politicians off the hook. It’s their town, it’s their infrastructure, it’s their job to see that it’s built right.

    Incidentally, I’m an engineer who spent a decade building, starting up and operating nuclear power plants at several sites.

  9. bfwebster says:

    J Bowen: Oh, I don’t think the local pols in Boston and Massachusetts are off the hook at all. As noted in some of my earlier “Big Crumble” postings, there are at least allegations of mutual backscratching going on among the MTA, the Mass state legislature, and the Big Crumble contractors. Beyond that, documents exist that indicate certain engineers and inspectors were warning about problems but were overridden by the various powers that be. ..bruce..

  10. Paul Dietz says:

    Stan: Yucca mountain depository should go forward but in conjunction with advanced reprocessing, casking and eventual actinide burning and ultimate permanent storage.

    Reprocessing doesn’t make economic sense until uranium prices increase by an order of magnitude from today’s levels, if then. Do you like wasting money? I observe that extraction of uranium from seawater (which contains about 4 billion tons of the element) by the Japanese amidoxime process is likely to be cheaper than this, so reprocessing is not likely to be needed in the foreseeable future.

    Bruce: is Yucca Mountain going forward just out of sheer momentum?

    I’d say so, and also that the requirement to bury the waste in the near term was political from the start. Burial may also have made more sense if reprocessing was going to be done, since once the fission products are out of the spent fuel elements they’re arguably more likely to become mobile in the environment. But reprocessing (and the fast reactors that would burn the recycled higher actinides) look like technological dead ends at this time.

  11. K says:

    Gee Harry, thanks for the definitive analysis. I think there is a work-around.

    Just introduce a bill to keep motorists out of Yucca Mountain. Bush will sign almost anything. And this makes more sense than most of your efforts.

    Until passage the Nevada highway patrol can block the roads.

    Harry, did you know Richard Nixon was a crook and George Schultz worked for Bechtel? Please, please, get that in the Congressional Record.