Ex-vit plant official raises safety concerns, alleges retaliation at Hanford

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerJuly 28, 2010 

Safety and design concerns are being suppressed at Hanford's $12.3 billion vitrification plant, charges the engineering manager who oversaw research and technology for the contracting team until he was dismissed earlier this month.

Walter Tamosaitis, who was research and technology manager for the project, has asked the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to investigate, saying he believes he was removed from the project for raising concerns about future safe operations at the plant.

The retaliation has had an "immediate chilling effect on the project safety quality," leaving other employees questioning whether they should raise issues, he told the board chairman in a letter. Congress created the board within the executive branch of the federal government to provide independent oversight of the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

"The board is taking it seriously, and we are looking into it," said Peter Winokur, board chairman. "He is a credible individual."

The board is looking at safety concerns Tamosaitis raised but does not have authority to address his allegations of retaliation, Winokur said.

Bechtel National holds the Department of Energy contract for the plant, which is planned to treat high level radioactive waste left from past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program. Tamosaitis worked for URS, Bechtel's principal subcontractor on the project.

Both URS and also Bechtel said they are taking seriously the issues Tamosaitis raised.

But Bechtel disagreed with his allegations that safety issues were being suppressed, saying in a written statement, "Our nuclear safety and quality culture encourages all employees to have a questioning attitude. As such, we expect internal staff and external technical experts to identify and raise safety, design and operational issues."

Until his dismissal, Tamosaitis had a budget of $500 million over seven years and had recently been told his working group had been given money for two to three more years of work, he said. In his job, he was trusted to represent the project in discussions with the safety board, regulators, DOE and the media.

URS, which continues to employ Tamosaitis, said in a written statement that its work to address technical tank mixing issues at the vit plant had ended, following which Tamosaitis was reassigned. He is no longer working on the vit plant project or managing staff, although work out of the area has been discussed with him. His supervisor also has left the project for a job elsewhere.

But Tamosaitis, 63, said he was given no notice that his vit plant job was ending.

On July 2, he went in to work on a vacation day for what he thought was going to be a brief meeting to discuss final details of the transition of his project group to new work as existing work neared completion.

Instead, his telephone and badge were taken and he was escorted from the building without being allowed to pick up personal items at his desk, he said.

The day before, he had discussed a list of 50 concerns at a Bechtel meeting. In June, Bechtel requested that managers collect and submit any remaining issues on the vit plant design. DOE and Bechtel are beginning to prepare for the transition from design and construction to construction and commissioning the plant for operation in 2019.

Among the 50 issues were the details of how to prevent heavy particles of plutonium from building up in the bottom of tanks and the process for bringing in, using and disposing of acid needed to clean extremely fine waste filters.

At the meeting, someone suggested that maybe Tamosaitis would "choke on the cherries," the snack being served, Tamosaitis said.

"While clearly intended as a joke, this inappropriate comment from a WTP (Waste Treatment Plant) senior Bechtel Project manager does, in my opinion, reflect the Bechtel management attitude and is consistent with the adverse safety and performance culture present by Bechtel," Tamosaitis wrote in the letter to the safety board.

"Personnel that have raised safety, quality and/or technical concerns in the past are subject to derision by Bechtel," he wrote.

Safety issues have routinely been downplayed by senior Bechtel project management during reviews, including preventing a criticality and ensuring that the plant would operate efficiently enough to complete work within 40 years, his letter said.

"I believe that the practices I have observed and experience in the WTP of seeking to suppress safety and other design concerns may adversely affect future public health and safety, result in a less-than-adequate design and waste taxpayer money," he wrote.

All 50 issues identified by Tamosaitis's group are being addressed, said Suzanne Heaston, spokeswoman for Bechtel National.

"Issues are rigorously evaluated, prioritized and then tracked through resolution," said a Bechtel statement. "Our design process is open and visible to employees and stakeholders, and to expert independent reviewers who have also identified issues and validated WTP's work."

DOE does not become involved in contractor personnel issues except for a few key managers identified in contracts, which does not include Tamosaitis, said DOE spokeswoman Carrie Meyer.

"DOE expects any technical or safety issue brought up will be thoroughly assessed and resolved," she said.

DOE has ensured that the vit plant project has implemented transparent review processes to address any technical or safety issues, she said.

-- The Walla Walla Union Bulletin contributed some information to this story.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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