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Bechtel's Nuclear Nightmares

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
May 1st, 2003

San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant
Californians are still paying for Bechtel's San Onofre Nuclear Plant. Randy Morse

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Last month, the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation won a $68 million contract to rebuild Iraq following the devasation wrought by the US invasion. Bechtel is notorious for having friends in high places, perhaps explaning how they got the contract in the first place. The privately owned corporation has operated with impunity, whether siphoning off millions of taxpayer dollars from government contracts or poisoning the communities surrounding their ventures. In the second part of our series we look at the enviromental and human right impacts of just a few of Bechtel's operations.

San Onofre, California, has a 950-ton radioactive problem: a nuclear reactor built by Bechtel that nobody wants. The unit was shut down over a decade ago in 1992 by its owners, Southern California Edison, who preferred not to spend $125 million in required safety upgrades.

The only place that will accept the reactor is a dump in South Carolina but railway officials refused to transport the cargo across the country. The next suggestion was to ship it via the Panama Canal but the canal operators said no. So did the government of Chile when the power plant owners asked for permission to take it around the Cape of Good Hope.

The only option left is to ship it all the way around the world, although even that is looking unlikely as harbor officials in Charleston, South Carolina, are already suggesting that they may deny the reactor entry. Edison officials are currently desperately looking for a port that might accept the toxic cargo before the dump shuts its doors in 2008.

Part of a Pattern

This is, by no means, the only nuclear headache created by Bechtel. The company estimates that it has built 40% of the United States nuclear capacity and 50% of nuclear power plants in the developing world. That accounts for 1,200 reactor years at 150 nuclear power plants. Indeed, Bechtel is still building nuclear reactors including the 1,450 megawatt nuclear reactor in Qinshan, China.

In fact, the world's first nuclear reactor to generate electrical power was completed just over 50 years ago by a team of Bechtel engineers in the sagebrush desert of southeastern Idaho under contract to the federal government. The 100-kilowatt EBR-1 was completed on December 21, 1951, ushering in the dawn of commercial nuclear power. Bechtel was quick to capitalize on its newfound nuclear expertise.

"Nobody doubted that nuclear energy could work. The real question was, could anyone make a profit in it?" recall the authors of Bechtel: Building a Century , the coffee table book that the company produced to mark the company's 100th anniversary in 1998.

The question is deeply ironic for ratepayers in California who are still paying for the financial bills and the environmental costs of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which has two reactors that are still generating power.

Environmental Perils

The local environmental costs continue to mount every day as the plant sucks in huge quantities of plankton, fish and even seals with the water to cool the reactors. It is destroying miles of kelp on the seabed by discharging water that is 25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than ocean temperature, according to Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club's coastal program.

"It's an unequivocal environmental and economic disaster with no redeeming features whatsoever," Massara noted.

And Don May, the president of California Earth Corp who has been fighting the plants since the 1960s, says that the future cost could be much higher because there is a major fault line about two miles away that is overdue for an earthquake. What worries him most is the fact that Bechtel installed one of the reactors backwards.

"The way the reactor has been installed at the site means that the seismic braces will exacerbate the impact of an earthquake rather than reduce it. In addition the reactor walls have been worn down to half their original thickness from constant bombardment." May explained. "If there is an earthquake, Lord help us."

Bechtel admits that the reactor was installed backwards but that's about it.

"There was not and is not any increased seismic risk," says Jeff Berger, a spokesman for Bechtel. "Bechtel, as the original constructor, would not be aware of reactor wall thinning problems. In-service inspections are typically conducted by the utility or subcontracted to the reactor supplier," he added.

Several former employees at the plant who have developed cancer have also sued Bechtel and plant owner Southern California Edison for exposure to radiation. It's a story that has become depressingly familiar for dozens of communities living downwind from nuclear plants that are seeing alarming increases in cancer.

Profiting From the Problem

To date, there has been no convincing solution as to how to dispose of the waste generated at these sites. As a result, for the last three decades no new nuclear power stations have been built because of the massive public opposition to such projects. Yet Bechtel's revenue from nuclear work in this country is skyrocketing.

The answer to this apparent paradox may also be found in the sagebrush deserts of southeastern Idaho where a new generation of Bechtel engineers moved in almost exactly 50 years to the day after their predecessors began work on the first commercial nuclear power plant.

This time the Bechtel team is in charge of managing and cleaning up the toxic and radioactive mess left behind by the 52 reactors that have littered the Idaho site in the past half-century as well as the 2 million cubic feet of transuranic waste buried on site such as plutonium-covered shoes, gloves and other tools used at the nuclear lab in Rocky Flats. Colorado. The five-year contract is worth a cool $3 billion.

In the last decade Bechtel has earned billions of dollars from similar contracts with the United States government to clean up the waste left behind by five decades of civilian and military testing. From 1981 to 1999 Bechtel managed the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), a federal program for the clean up of 46 sites contaminated with hazardous, radioactive, or mixed wastes generated primarily by the nation's early atomic weapons program.

In 1994 Bechtel became the "environmental restoration contractor" for 1,500 radioactive and hazardous waste sites and nearly 200 inactive facilities at the former atomic weapons materials site at Hanford in Washington State. In 1996 the company won a chunk of the $6 billion contract to manage and clean up the Savannah River nuclear weapons site in Aiken, South Carolina.

In 1997 Bechtel-Jacobs won a $2.5 billion five-year contract to manage environmental cleanup in three government-owned uranium enrichment sites at Portsmouth, Ohio, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Paducah, Kentucky. Overseas Bechtel has won contracts to stabilize the concrete shelter that covers the damaged Unit 4 reactor building of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine as well as contracts to build storage facilities for Russia's dismantled nuclear warheads at the Mayak plutonium works near Chelyabinsk in western Siberia.

Blemished Record

Bechtel claims in its literature that it is the "natural choice" for nuclear work. Perhaps. It is, after all, the company with the most experience in this field. Unfortunately Bechtel's record on nuclear clean up is spotty.

For example the company's work cleaning up the mess after the nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the 1970s helped make a bad situation worse. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) Office of Investigations found that Bechtel "improperly classified" modifications to the plant as "not important to safety" in order to avoid safety controls. In 1985, the NRC fined the two companies for harassing and intimidating workers who complained about these lapses.

Meanwhile, last December Bechtel proudly announced it had finished cleaning up trichloroethylene in the soil at the Paducah, Kentucky, site a year ahead of schedule. The speed completion earned the company an award from the Department of Energy. However, an embarrassed Bechtel spokesman recently Greg Cook admitted that there were quality-assurance troubles at the lab, which declared that the job was done, and that they would have to re-check the results.

Local communities are already starting to object. Ronald Lamb, who lives just two miles from the Bechtel managed facility and is a member of the local Site Specific Advisory Board, complains that Bechtel refuses to turn over even the most basic information about the contracts with the Board itself.

"They've got an answer for just about any question you ask about how safe everything is but they won't tell us how they are spending our tax money," Lamb said.

"My father died of cancer, my next door neighbor died with cancers behind both eyes. Seventeen people have died of cancer in the 30 houses on the next street and they are still studying what to do?"

Bechtel spokesperson Berger says that the company has done more than just studies.

"We have established, with state and federal regulatory agencies, a new approach that provides a more comprehensive evaluation of the site's environmental media." Berger noted. "(We have also) disposed of roughly 20 percent of the site's total legacy waste, treated more than 350 million gallons of contaminated groundwater, bringing contaminants down to within Safe Drinking Water Act standards before release."

Bechtel also says it removed Drum Mountain, a 35-foot-tall pile of 85,000 rusted drums containing uranium tetrafluoride, at the Paducah site ahead of schedule.

But the US Department of Energy agrees with some of what Lamb says. An independent investigation into Bechtel's performance, completed by the agency in October 1999, concluded: "The current radiation protection program and some elements of worker safety programs do not exhibit the required levels of discipline and formality."

"Further, there has been little progress in reducing or mitigating site hazards or sources of environmental contamination. Weaknesses in hazard controls are evident, ... oversight has not been sufficient, and communication with stakeholders and workers has not been comprehensive and responsive to stakeholder needs."

And Bechtel has a $5 billion ten-year contract to manage the Nevada test site where the federal government has conducted over 1,000 nuclear tests. Although the massive underground explosions that drew thousands of protestors out to the desert town of Mercury, Nevada, are now over, Bechtel is now helping the government conduct sub-critical nuclear tests.

Native Americans from the surrounding communities continue to fight to shut down both the test site as well as the proposed Yucca Mountain dumpsite that will be located within the property that Bechtel manages. Corbyn Harney, a Western Shoshone elder who lives in the area, has been saying for years, "These tests are a direct threat to our water and thus to all life here in the desert."

So far, his complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

Pratap Chatterjee is an investigative reporter based in Berkeley, California