This article has been co-published with USA Today/Gannett.
A $67.5 million payment by a major nuclear weapons contractor to settle claims that it illegally spent federal funds is the latest in a series of settlements stemming from allegations that firms making bombs and cleaning up the resulting debris are using federal money improperly to win support for continued weapons-related work.
Altogether, the three companies that have made such settlement payments since 2013 are involved in the operation of six of the eight active sites in the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons program. Actions by the Energy Department’s contractors — including any misspending — have substantial impact, since contract work consumes roughly 90 percent of the department's total budget.
The lobbying activities at the heart of the latest settlement helped one of the contractors win a $45 million award for additional cleanup work. Although work on energy generation and consumption garners more public attention and President-elect Donald Trump has nominated an oil-state politician — former Texas governor Rick Perry — to become the department’s new top manager, such nuclear weapons-related work accounts for nearly two-thirds of all the department’s activities.
The latest case emerged from a civil lawsuit that accused two companies of performing substandard work at a nuclear weapons-related waste site and said one of them had improperly spent government funds to lobby for more. The companies declared on Nov. 23 they would settle the allegations by making payments, mostly to the federal government, for a total of $125 million, a massive amount for alleged Energy Department-related malfeasance.
The settlement involves work by Bechtel National Inc. and its parent Bechtel Corp., and URS Corp. and its subsidiary URS Energy and Construction Inc., which together have been trying to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. That’s where raw uranium was enriched into fuel for nuclear bombs during the Manhattan Project and the Cold War.
The firms have denied doing anything improper. But the settlement is part of an emerging pattern.
Lockheed Martin Corp., which operates one of three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories – Sandia, agreed in August 2015 to pay $4.7 million to settle a complaint by the Justice Department that it used federal funds to lobby for a no-bid contract extension. Last Friday, it lost that effort when the Department of Energy selected a different contractor team, led by Honeywell International, to run Sandia for up to a decade, beginning next year. Meanwhile, Fluor Corp. paid $1.1 million in April 2013 to settle accusations that it used federal funds to lobby government agencies for more business at its Hanford training facility.