DOE to strengthen nuclear safety at Hanford

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerJuly 2, 2011 

The Department of Energy will be taking steps to strengthen the nuclear safety culture at Hanford and nationwide, even though it continues to question findings of a federal nuclear safety oversight board.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has sent a response to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board agreeing "in the spirit of continual improvement" to recommendations made by the board. But he continues to object to the conclusions the board drew that led to the recommendations.

As the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and DOE continue to be at odds a year after questions about the safe operations of the Hanford vitrification plant were raised by dismissed engineering manager Walt Tamosaitis, Chu is recommending a neutral review to see how the two agencies can better work together. He suggested it could be done by the National Academy of Science.

Most recently, the defense board concluded in June that failings in the nuclear safety culture at Hanford's vitrification plant are endangering the success of the $12.2 billion project.

It found that behavior by DOE and contractor management on the project reinforces a subculture that deters workers from reporting technical safety concerns and management from resolving them. It also alleged that DOE and contractor management suppressed technical dissent on the project.

At issue is whether some systems of the vitrification plant under construction to treat radioactive waste will safely operate, particularly systems to keep high level radioactive waste adequately mixed. If the mixing system is inadequate, flammable gases could build up or enough plutonium could settle out to create a small chance of a criticality.

The defense board findings on the plant's safety culture "appear to rely on a number of accounts describing the actions and behaviors of both contractor and DOE personnel that we believe may have been misunderstood by the board," Chu wrote in a letter made public Friday.

The conclusions drawn by the board are not consistent with other reviews of the safety culture, including one by the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security, in response to Tamosaitis' concerns, nor do they reflect the safety performance at the plant, Chu wrote.

"Most (vitrification plant) personnel did not express a loss of confidence in management support, a sense of a chilled environment, or a fear of retaliation," Chu wrote.

DOE takes very seriously the claim that management suppressed technical information that conflicted with DOE policy, but an investigation by the DOE Office of the General Counsel found no evidence that DOE or its contractors were aware of and sought to suppress a technical report, Chu wrote.

While DOE cannot accept allegations without a review of the board's full investigative record, it does agree that "establishment of a strict safety culture must be a fundamental principle throughout the DOE complex," Chu said.

The defense board recommended that DOE assert federal control at the highest level to track and validate actions toward a strong safety culture at the vit plant. It also recommended DOE conduct a review of safety regulations to see if perceived weaknesses extend beyond the vit plant.

Finally, it addressed Tamosaitis' removal from the vitrification plant project, saying a nonadversarial review should be conducted of his removal, his current treatment by DOE and how that has affected the safety culture at the vitrification plant.

Tamosaitis alleges he was removed from the vit plant project and assigned to a basement office with no significant duties because he raised questions about safe operations of the plant that put at risk a $6 million payment to the contract.

Steps DOE will take to address the recommendations include:

* Chu and his deputy secretary will continue to be personally engaged to assert federal control to make sure safety culture improvements are tracked and validated.

* A series of town hall-style meetings will be led by senior DOE officials to highlight for workers the importance of maintaining a strong safety culture.

* DOE and contractor Bechtel National will arrange "safety conscious work environment" training for Bechtel and DOE managers and supervisors with a firm that conducts the training for nuclear power plants.

* An independent review of safety culture will be conducted across the entire DOE complex.

* At Hanford, the employee concerns program for the Office of River Protection and Richland Operations Office will be combined to strengthen the programs and increase their visibility.

* Ombudsmen have been named at DOE headquarters to act as advocates for employees and their concerns. Employees have access to a hotline and an email inbox to ask questions or raise concerns directly or anonymously.

* DOE will cooperate with an ongoing review of a Department of Labor review of Tamosaitis' case. But the Department of Labor has jurisdiction and expertise in whistleblower claims and DOE does not plan to further investigate on its own, Chu wrote.

DOE and Bechtel already have taken steps during the past year to strengthen the nuclear safety culture at the vitrification plant, according to Chu.

Federal roles and organizational responsibilities have been more clearly defined and employee forums have been held to ensure that employees understand the changes.

An expert in commercial nuclear power plant methods has been hired to train 1,600 people on the project to make sure workers are comfortable raising issues and that issues are systematically moved toward resolution.

In addition, Bechtel has conducted three all-hands meetings across 13 months to emphasize the importance of a robust nuclear safety culture.

Some of the steps were taken in response to the DOE Office of Health Safety and Security review, and the office will conduct an additional analysis to determine if cost and schedule pressures are challenging the implementation of a robust nuclear safety culture.

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