Vit plant review finds strong safety culture, areas in need

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerOctober 7, 2010 

Bechtel National has established the framework for a strong safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant, but improvements could be made, according to a new review.

The Department of Energy Office of Health, Safety and Security conducted the review at the request of DOE's Office of Environmental Management, which is responsible for environmental cleanup at Hanford.

The policies and attitude toward safety at the $12.3 billion vit plant became an issue when Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the plant, was released from the project without warning in July after he said he raised concerns about safe and efficient operations of the plant.

"Most WTP (Waste Treatment Plant) personnel who were interviewed expressed that their managers encouraged a questioning attitude and that they were comfortable with raising safety concerns," said the review released Wednesday.

Many said that management at all levels continuously reinforces a theme that safety is more important than schedule or budget pressures.

However, there also were some employees of Bechtel National or its subcontractors who said that the environment at the plant discourages reporting of safety concerns or that they might face retaliation for raising safety concerns, the review said.

"In a strong nuclear safety culture, any such employee concerns need to be carefully evaluated and addressed," the review said.

Those employees said they were concerned about subtle retaliation -- that if they raised safety issues they would not be selected for new assignments as their current assignments were completed and fewer workers were needed for engineering and construction.

In addition, several people, including senior staff and managers, indicated the situation with Tamosaitis had contributed to a chilling effect that may reduce their willingness to raise technical and safety issues, the review said.

Some individuals also gave examples of supervisors or managers not always "walking the talk" on safety issues. They had been told not to write a Project Issue Evaluation Report, which is used to report and resolve safety and quality issues, unless it was cleared with management first, the review said.

Others said managers and company lawyers inappropriately attempted to change issued documents to put the company in a more favorable light, the review said.

Bechtel management needs to be sure that its communications with staff and its actions demonstrate commitment to safety and quality, the review said. It also needs to do a better job of managing change as the vit plant progresses through different phases from design to commissioning, the review found.

"Management has not been consistently effective in explaining decisions in a manner that fosters continued confidence among the work force," it said.

For instance, decisions on major issues -- such as plans to keep high-level radioactive waste well mixed to prevent a criticality -- had not been well communicated or justified to staff or those outside the plant with differing opinions, the review said.

However, it did find DOE and Bechtel managers appropriately considered uncertainties and differing opinions on the mixing issue and had developed appropriate plans for further testing to resolve residual questions, it said.

The review recommended that Bechtel perform a systematic assessment of its processes for identifying and resolving nuclear safety issues. It needs to establish a formal management process that identifies the actions needed to ensure that safety programs are not degraded by changes in project priorities, the review said.

A formal company policy addressing all aspects of nuclear safety culture and training for management on fostering a safety-conscious work environment would be helpful, the review said.

Improved processes also are need to provide feedback to professional staff on the state of technical issues, it said.

Before the review Bechtel had recognized the need to further strengthen its nuclear safety culture and had begun to develop a plan of improvement.

The review released Wednesday addressed the future operational safety of the plant rather than safety of current work to build the plant.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533;; More Hanford news at hanfordnews. com.

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