And those dangers weren’t always obvious.
Few records of Hanford’s plutonium production existed—and some of
those that did inaccurately noted where chemicals were spilled or leaked.
“Every time you stick an excavator bucket in the ground and you
bring it out, it’s a new surprise,” says Robert Cantwell, PMP, director of
closure operations, WCH, Richland, Washington, USA.
In one land;ll, radioactive drums could ignite and turn into a virtual bon;re
if the chemical within the drums—nicknamed “Sparky”—was exposed to air. So
the team kept practicing. ;e ;rst time a drum caught ;re during excavation,
the team had it buried within three seconds. But operations were shut down for
a month so the team could hold critiques and review lessons learned to reduce
future delays. After the second drum caught ;re, operations closed for just a
week; after the third drum caught ;re, the shutdown lasted just one morning,
Mr. Dover says.
“Our techniques worked,” he says. “Basically, we were able to take a poten-
tially very big risk to the public and mitigate it.”
;e team also had to be diligent about the daily use of heavy equipment that
moved all that radioactive material. During peak operations, trucks hauled 600
containers of toxic waste each day. To reduce the possibility of accidents and
keep on schedule, Mr. Dover says, trucks followed a looped road in a single
direction so they never crossed paths.
“Most people would think that the radiological or chemical safety issues are
the biggest [safety] issues. But they’re really not,” Mr. Dover says. “It’s the standard work practices. ;at’s where we have to be careful on safety.”
SATISFYING THE SKEPTICS
Every organization strives to complete its projects as quickly and e;ciently as
possible. But WCH had even more of an incentive: Eighty percent of every U.S.
dollar the team saved was reinvested into additional work, and 20 percent of
every U.S. dollar saved was paid to WCH as a reward, Mr. Sax says.
Sometimes it just took small-scale e;ciencies to deliver big results. When
WCH discovered thousands of tiny bottles in a waste burial site, the team
initially planned to have workers in protective suits collect the bottles one at
a time, put them in a bag and send them to another work area to be safely
crushed, Mr. Cantwell says. But after consulting with regulators, the team determined it was safe to have excavator operators modify their equipment so they
could scoop and crush the bottles en mass on-site.
Team members were “very good at taking a step back and saying, ‘There’s
an easier way to do this,’” Mr. Cantwell says. “It doesn’t always have to be
Still, WCH knew some local community members and federal regulators—as
well as all U.S. taxpayers—might worry the contract would prompt the team
to “cut corners … that we’d do things cheap at the expense of quality,” Mr. Sax
says. “So we had to demonstrate that we weren’t doing that.”
Building Tribal Trust
Long before the Manhattan Project
came along in the 1940s, the Cayuse,
Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes had
forged strong ties to the land. This
was the place where for centuries they
had fished, hunted, grazed cattle and
horses, held religious ceremonies and
buried their dead.
So when it came time to restore the
Columbia River corridor, the Washington Closure Hanford (WCH) team knew
it needed the backing of the tribes. And
the only way to secure that support was
by building trust.
Along with holding regular meetings
with tribe members, WCH facilitated
access to burial grounds and other sites
the tribes had used for religious ceremonies before the federal government
cordoned off the site.
As part of the collaboration, the
tribes agreed to provide cultural training so WCH could recognize artifacts
discovered during excavation. The tribes
also helped the Hanford team identify
sacred grounds to ensure they weren’t
disturbed during cleanup—which could
have ground work to a halt.
“The tribes are very private about
stuff, particularly the burial grounds,”
says WCH’s Scott Sax, PMP. “So we had
to develop a trust with them, because
our people—our environmental team
and our ecologists—had to work in
When it was time to revegetate
the site, WCH leaned on the tribes’
knowledge to choose native plants with
religious significance, using seeds col-
lected and cultivated by the tribes, says
Gordon Dover at WCH.
“This was their land before we came
here,” he says. “We didn’t want to dis-
turb their history while cleaning up Cold