The Energy Department and a contractor building a waste treatment plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation, the nation’s most contaminated site, installed tanks that did not meet all the requirements of a quality assurance program or the contract, a federal audit found.

The audit also found the agency paid the contractor a $15 million incentive fee for production of a tank later determined to be defective and, while it demanded the company return the fee, it never followed up on the matter.

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The $12.3 billion plant under construction at Hanford has been the subject of whistleblower complaints about its design and safety. The plant should convert highly radioactive glass into a stable glass form for permanent disposal underground.

The tanks’ design is significant because they will locate in “black cells,” areas of the plant that will be too radioactively hot for workers to enter once the plant is operating.

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The audit focused on tanks received and installed prior to mid-2005. No tanks of similar design have come in since then.

The Energy Department said it has taken steps to improve quality assurance and oversight, conducting technical surveillance on tanks and holding installations until the can independently verify any design issues.

The audit raised questions about 10 out of 2,000 missing documents on welds on two tanks, said Todd Nelson, spokesman for contractor Bechtel National Inc., but it also acknowledged significant improvements to the program in recent years.

“That level of documentation is sufficient for any other industry, but we will ensure that all of that documentation is in place before the black cells are closed and, certainly, before the plant begins operation,” he said.

He said the $15 million fee was included as part of a 2009 contract modification.

The Energy Department also noted the contract modification in its response to the audit. The response said the agency will investigate whether questions about whether they resolved issues about the tanks at a later date to justify the fee and, if not, whether the agency can ask for the fee back, under the modified contract.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades.

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