Pipefitter has seen, done it all at Vit Plant jobsite
Bernie Hecker, yellow hard hat perched on his head, navigates a white pickup through the middle of Vit Plant jobsite. He points to the facilities and systems he’s worked on since joining the project in 2001.
“I helped install all the piping we’re driving over now,” he says, gesturing widely on a sunny day in February. “I don’t think people realize how much piping runs through and between the facilities.”
Oftentimes, he recalls work he’s done only when he sees it.
“Oh, I installed the piping in these pipe racks too,” he says, waving his hand and indicating the racks overhead, outside the Low-Activity Waste (LAW) Facility.
Hecker was the first pipefitter journeyman to join the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Project in December 2001, and he is now the longest continuously employed craft employee on the project.
“People ask why I’ve been here so long, and I tell them it’s because I work for a company that wants to keep me safe. They talk the talk and walk the walk.”
When Hecker arrived at the Vit Plant, he joined a team of four other pipefitters at a jobsite that was just a massive field.
“There was nothing out here,” Hecker says. “There was one trailer that held all the offices, and there was no parking lot. We parked in the dirt over by where the switchgear building is now.”
He and his small team immediately started to install underground piping, working around the many scrapers that were leveling the land around them.
“I’ve primarily worked on the Balance of Facilities (BOF),” Hecker says. He laid underground piping to all the major nuclear facilities, and he was the first foreman for the BOF’s Chiller Compressor Plant.
“I set the underground sump and saw it all the way through to getting turned over,” Hecker says. “That’s pretty cool – to walk by and hear the compressors going now. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.”
Work on the Chiller Compressor Plant started in 2005 with Hecker as the pipefitter foreman. He returned to the tools for a while before taking on the role of foreman again. It was turned over from construction in 2018.
“I got to see and touch the entire construction process and in different roles and with different responsibilities,” Hecker says. “And I can say that it’s some of the highest quality work I’ve seen.”
It’s obvious that Hecker has a lot of respect for his co-workers. “We have some of the best craft I’ve seen out here. They care about what they’re doing, and they’re doing a great job.”
Hecker has particularly enjoyed seeing his co-workers progress through their careers, getting better at their trades. “That’s my favorite thing, seeing fitters who apprenticed under me going working as general foremen now, whether on this job or another job. I also enjoy seeing my friends and coworkers retire after all the hard work.”
Hecker has also seen a lot of milestones on the project and been fortunate enough to be a part of some of them, such as setting some of the massive tanks in the LAW Facility, standing up large vessels, and setting the chiller compressor using air pallets. He’s seen his share of the hard times on project too, including the seismic criteria shut down in 2005. “I’ve always just tried to ignore all the outside talk and focus on doing my job well and staying safe,” Hecker says.
After 20 years on the project, Hecker has gained a lot of institutional knowledge that has helped him and his co-workers, whether he’s been able to find a part, locate documentation, or known how or why something was done. “I think that’s come in handy is too many times to count now,” he says with a laugh.
Now, Hecker is part of the Island Completion Team and working on installing the coaxial piping that will deliver the waste from the Tank Farms. The piping is a 3-inch pipe embedded inside a 6-inch pipe. It is all being installed underground, starting at the fence line of the Tank Farms and running to the Effluent Management Facility (EMF) and the LAW Facility.
“I tell people to push the ‘believe’ button,” Hecker says. “A lot of people are putting their blood, sweat, and tears into this project, and we’re getting it done. We’re going to make glass.”
Hecker grew up just 60 miles north of Tri-Cities in Othello, Wash., so he appreciates the project’s mission – cleaning up Hanford’s radioactive waste and protecting the Columbia River.
“I like being a part of a job that is more than just a job,” Hecker says. “We’re doing something here – we’re contributing to something. I’m proud of that. I like to tell my grandkids about it.”
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