Energy Secretary Chu to visit Hanford in June

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 28, 2012 

Energy Secretary Steven Chu plans to visit Hanford in June to hold a town hall and other meetings to discuss safety issues with vitrification plant workers.

No date has been set, but the visit is being planned, said Matthew Moury, a Department of Energy deputy assistant secretary, during a presentation to the House Nuclear Cleanup Caucus on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. He discussed safety, including nuclear safety culture and technical issues that could affect safe operations of the vitrification plant.

This was the first time a caucus briefing has been organized to focus specifically on safety, but it seemed appropriate based on issues at Hanford, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. He organizes the briefings each spring to educate congressional leaders and their staff about environmental cleanup at DOE sites, including Hanford.

The safety culture at the vitrification plant became an issue in summer 2010 when Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the plant, outlined concerns in a letter to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

Since then, the defense board has issued a recommendation to DOE on nuclear safety culture to make sure that workers feel free to raise technical concerns about the plant's design and construction that could affect its future safe and efficient operations and that concerns are considered and addressed.

There also has been a focus on unresolved technical concerns at the plant, which has a design that is 85 percent complete.

In the defense board's letter to Congress this month on the status of significant unresolved issues on DOE construction projects, it listed five technical safety issues at the vitrification plant. The $12.2 billion plant is being built to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from past production of weapons plutonium.

"We believe we have a path forward to resolving all the issues identified in the report," said Moury, who is the deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Safety, Security and Quality Programs.

The defense board noted in its report that the term "unresolved issues" does not necessarily mean that the board has a disagreement with DOE or believes DOE's path forward to resolution is inappropriate, Moury said.

To resolve questions on keeping high-level radioactive waste well mixed at the vit plant, DOE expects to start large-scale testing with tanks up to 14 feet in diameter this fall and complete testing in 2014, he said. A vessel completion team also has been formed to oversee testing, design, procurement and quality assessment, he said.

If high-level radioactive waste does not remain well mixed it could lead to a criticality, explosion of flammable gas or failure of parts of the plant in areas too radioactive for workers to safely enter and repair.

DOE contractor Bechtel National is developing a hydrogen control strategy to address the second unresolved issue, buildup of flammable hydrogen in piping, Moury said. For the third issue, which involves potential pipe leaks, DOE has begun testing at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and expects a report soon.

Other issues being addressed are related to heat transfer analysis and controls over large amounts of ammonia that will be used to treat off gases.

Efforts also are under way to improve the safety culture at the vitrification plant, Moury said.

One of Chu's first actions in response to defense board concerns was to designate the deputy secretary to take control, Moury said. In his experience, it is the first time responsibility has been assigned on a defense board issue at that high level, he said.

"We know we need to strengthen our safety culture," Moury said. DOE is taking action to identify where weaknesses exist and then taking the steps needed to make improvement, he said.

DOE also recognizes that changing the safety culture will take sustained effort by senior management, he said.

"We have to constantly reinforce it or it will spring back," he said.

DOE also is looking at the safety culture at its other construction projects, including in Idaho, New Mexico and South Carolina, but issues of the magnitude of those identified at the vitrification plant have not been identified, he said.

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

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