2017 POY Winner

Nuclear cleanup project is POY winner

uclear clean-up projects have no margin for error. One misstep can expose workers and a region’s environment to devastating radioactive contaminants. But a project team at a legacy U.S. site had to be more than just painstakingly precise. It also had to be really fast—and frugal. The three-year, US$107.3 million AY-102 Recovery has been awarded the Project Management Institute's Project of the Year (POY) for 2017. A 40-year-old underground storage tank holding 2,8 million litres of nuclear waste sprang a leak. The team needed to make sure that not a drop of waste reached the nearby Columbia River, the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. The project called for removing all waste from the faulty tank and transferring it to a new underground container for safe storage.

The mission was clear and had to fit within an existing U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) clean-up program at the Hanford Site, which once developed plutonium to fuel nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War era. The leak, discovered in August 2012, was the first breach of a double-shell tank among the 212 million litres of highly radioactive waste buried in 177 tanks.

Site operator Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) initially estimated that even the most aggressive schedule would require as many as five years to retrieve the tank’s waste and store it in a new, stable double-shell tank. But that wasn’t fast enough. A court order initiated by the DOE and the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology required the project to be completed in less than 36 months. Otherwise, WRPS would face financial and legal penalties.

In a race against time, the project team refused to panic. The team first took steps to identify a host of other known and unknown potential risks, fill resource gaps and assure nervous public stakeholders that the entire region would remain safe.

"I wouldn’t say it was mission impossible," says Sebastien Guillot, PMP, a project manager with subcontractor AREVA Federal Services, Richland, Washington, USA. "But a lot of people thought, ‘Boy, these guys are in trouble. Doing this in less than three years? Good luck.’"

The odds were stacked against them. An early Monte Carlo risk analysis predicted the team had a 12 percent chance of succeeding. And the schedule was so aggressive that there wasn’t enough time to incorporate specialized equipment into much of the execution phase. For instance, vendors couldn’t design and manufacture specialized sluicers used to remove waste until relatively late in the schedule. So the team turned to older equipment for the bulk of work.

The team also deployed two full-time schedulers who ultimately oversaw 9 000 activities. They conducted as many as seven weekly meetings devoted to scheduling issues. A critical-path analysis proved to be the team’s most important scheduling tool.

"Roughly 15 to 20 percent of our time was spent revising the schedule status and progress, while also doing a very thorough critical-path analysis to constantly monitor where the longest pole in the tent is in the project and what can we do to at least make sure it’s not getting longer," Mr. Guillot says.

The approach not only helped keep team members and stakeholders informed but also allowed the team to quickly respond to any surprises on critical-path activities. With Mr. Guillot calling for expeditious solutions at every turn, team members embraced the chance to fast-track new opportunities that cropped up. These time -saving efforts paid off—particularly during the planning phase when the team built up 71 days of float that was sorely needed to narrowly hit a March 2016 deadline so waste removal could begin.

The entire project ultimately closed 17 days ahead of schedule early this year.

"More often than not, we would walk out of meetings with a real sense of accomplishment, saying, ‘Hey, we made progress today. We fixed a problem. We accelerated our schedule. Now we’re in a better position,’" Mr. Guillot says.

"If you meet the schedule on a project of this magnitude, you’re pretty much guaranteed to control your costs ," he says. "From a high-level standpoint, what drives the cost is the time you spend to execute the project." In the end, the project came in US$8.7 million under budget

Like Clockwork

2012: A leak is discovered in nuclear waste tank AY-102.
2013: Remediation options are explored and a recovery plan is developed and proposed to U.S. Department of Energy.
2014: Project launches. Engineering, design and procurement begin.
2015: Construction and installation of equipment completes.
2016: Operations to remove waste begin.
February 2017: Retrieval operations completed
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