Unattainable goal?
Report: Chances of closing Rocky Flats by 2006 are just 7 percent

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Yet another report has come out that strongly questions the Department of Energy's chances of closing Rocky Flats, the former atomic-bomb factory south of Boulder, by 2006.

A recently released review by accounting firm Ernst & Young, commissioned by the DOE itself, concludes that "the probability of the project being completed by 2006 is very low."

In fact, the main contractor on the project, Kaiser-Hill, estimates the probability at just 7 percent, the Ernst & Young report states.

Kaiser-Hill President Bob Card substantially confirmed this estimate.

"Our own assessments show there's only a 10-percent chance of making it happen," Card said in an interview. However, he said there was about a 50-percent chance of closing the site by the fall of 2007.

The DOE hired Ernst & Young to review Kaiser-Hill's plan for closing the plant in the next seven years. The DOE and Kaiser-Hill are in the midst of negotiating a possible extension of the Rocky Flats cleanup contract.

"We have identified a number of issues and concerns that significantly reduce our confidence that the 2006 closure plan, as written, can achieve successful closure in 2006," Ernst & Young wrote in the report.

At the same time, "we do not consider any of the issues and concerns listed below fatal to the efforts to close the site by 2006," reviewers wrote.

Jessie Roberson, the DOE's site manager at Rocky Flats, said she took the report to mean that if the concerns raised by reviewers are adequately addressed, the closure goal is still achievable.

"Their summary was that this can certainly be done," Roberson said.

One of the main factors reducing Ernst & Young's confidence was an apparent shortage of labor.

"Management is expecting workers to be more efficient and work overtime, yet workers have little incentive to do so," the report states. In addition, given a strong economy, "new hires are becoming more difficult to find," it concludes.

Another factor was "overly optimistic" assumptions in the area of waste management. A system for packaging plutonium before shipping it off-site will "likely be prone to frequent breakdowns," and disposal sites are still not available for some of the nuclear waste from Rocky Flats, reviewers observed.

Moreover, ongoing studies of soil cleanup standards may result in stricter cleanup levels than those currently planned for, the report noted.

The reviewers also said Kaiser-Hill's plan lacked adequate contingency plans in case the project falls behind schedule or runs out of funding.

Card, the Kaiser-Hill president, said he agreed with some of the report's findings and disagreed with others.

He added, however, that Kaiser-Hill will seriously consider the report's findings as it revises its cleanup plan.

"I don't mean to pooh-pooh this thing at all," Card said.

Card said he agreed with the reviewers' statement that performance bonuses for contractors based on annual achievement "milestones" tend to encourage short-term thinking.

"We've always felt that the annual thing they talked about in there was a bad deal," Card said.

He said he hoped incentives in the new cleanup contract would instead be tied to final closure.

Card said he also expected the new contract to include "major penalties" for safety problems. Critics have expressed fear that as the site rushes to meet the 2006 deadline, worker safety may take a back seat.

A report by the congressional General Accounting Office, released last May, also expressed strong doubt that Rocky Flats could be closed by 2006.

Both Roberson and Card said they believed Rocky Flats itself was on track to a timely closure, but added that some obstacles, such as the availability of nuclear-waste dumps, are beyond their control.

Tom Marshall of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder said the report was further evidence that the 2006 deadline was unrealistic and might compromise a proper cleanup.

"The most important thing is that the work be done and that it be done well," not how soon it's done, Marshall said.