The contract award marks one step in what is likely to be months of transition at south-central Washington's Hanford site, where three of five large contracts to rid the site of waste have been out for bid. The other two were awarded in 2005.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Cleanup costs are expected to top $50 billion.
Central to that cleanup is the removal of some 53 million gallons of residual radioactive and chemical waste - enough to cover 123 football fields, including end zones, a foot deep - from three decades of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. The waste is stewing in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked into the aquifer and threaten the region's largest waterway, the neighboring Columbia River.
Washington River Protection Solutions LLC won the contract Thursday to retrieve the waste and close the tanks. The company takes over July 1.
The five-year contract has an option to be extended for as long as five additional years. It's valued at about $7.1 billion over 10 years.
The limited liability company is comprised of the Washington Division of San Francisco-based URS Corp., and Energy Solutions Federal Services Inc., based in Salt Lake City.
CH2M Hill Hanford Group has managed tank waste cleanup since 2000.
Still out for bid are contracts to retrieve and dispose of waste from Hanford's central plateau and to handle safety and security, information technology and road work at the site.
In 2005, the Energy Department awarded Washington Closure LLC the contract to clean up the 210-square-mile Columbia River corridor, while Bechtel National Inc. is building the waste treatment plant that will someday encase the tank waste in glasslike logs for long-term storage underground.
The Hanford site played an integral role over the last century in achieving national security objectives, and the Energy Department remains committed to preserving the health and safety of the community and environment that surround the site, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement.
"Today's award to Washington River Protection Solutions LLC will ensure continued safe operation of tank waste retrievals and will position the department to support future operations at the waste treatment plant," he said.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who has no role in contract selection, said his concern has always been the impact of Energy Department policies and decisions on the local community, the Hanford work force and the cleanup progress.
"With three new contracts, there are questions about what change will mean," he said. "I'll be watching closely and monitoring how the contract process is unfolding."