KENNEWICK -- Over the objections of the Department of Energy, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is investigating the possibility of witness tampering by the DOE at the board's meeting in Kennewick.
The DOE, which said it conducted its own investigation, has asked the weapons board in a sharply worded letter to immediately stop its investigation and close the matter.
The board, commissioned by Congress to provide independent oversight of nuclear safety at the DOE weapons sites, held a rare meeting in October outside Washington, D.C., to hear from the department, its contractors and experts on the operational safety and efficiency of the Hanford vitrification plant under construction.
The board has been concerned that the $12.2 billion plant will be commissioned before several key technical issues are fully resolved.
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As the board continues to work on its overall findings, the department has objected to the weapons board asking questions about whether witnesses it heard from were free to speak their minds or whether the DOE inappropriately tried to change testimony or retaliate against witnesses. The weapons board picked the witnesses who spoke and answered questions at the meeting, in some cases issuing subpoenas.
The investigation into witness tampering at the meeting "has been, at best, inexpert," according to a letter to the weapons board signed by Scott Harris last month before resigning as the DOE general counsel and Timothy Lynch, the deputy general counsel for litigation and enforcement.
"We have concerns about the board's authority and ability to conduct this investigation," the letter said. As a board composed of experts in the field of nuclear safety, the board has neither the jurisdiction nor the expertise to investigate what it called alleged witness tampering, the letter said.
Such an investigation requires "significant expertise and experienced judgment," the letter said. Even if the investigation does conclude that there was inappropriate conduct, no one with authority to take remedial action could rely on the findings or the record created, the letter said.
In the DOE's investigation into possible misconduct, it concluded that no one at the DOE or at one of its contractors took improper actions, the letter said. It looked into the matter because if there were any credible evidence of witness tampering, the DOE would be required to take immediate employment or contract action. The DOE has not publicly released the report of its investigation, although it was provided to the defense board.
At the least, the weapons board should halt its investigation while its jurisdiction over the matter is in dispute, the DOE said. The Offices of Inspectors General or the Department of Justice would have jurisdiction and competence to investigate allegations, the letter said.
The board feels strongly that it is in its jurisdiction to look at whether everyone feels free to speak their minds to the board, said board Chairman Peter Winokur on Friday in a telephone interview. It's a natural evolution of its work as the board looks at safety at the plant, he said.
"The focus is the safety culture out at the Waste Treatment Plant," he said. "Is there a culture to raise safety concerns and feel comfortable doing it?"
In a brief letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in response to the letter from the DOE, Winokur said its investigation is consistent with the board's duties outlined in the amended Atomic Energy Act. The act said the board "shall investigate any event or practice at a Department of Energy defense nuclear facility which the board determines has adversely affected, or may adversely affect, public health and safety."
Whether workers at the vitrification plant feel free to raise safety concerns became an issue after the removal of Walt Tamosaitis from his URS management position at the plant in July. The former research and technology manager for the plant was released from the project without warning after he said he raised concerns about the safe and efficient operations of the plant.
Among his concerns was that waste mixing issues had not been adequately resolved, which left a small possibility that a criticality could occur as the plant is operating, he has said. Bechtel faced a deadline to resolve the mixing issue that came due the week Tamosaitis was released or it could lose up to 80 percent of a possible $6.3 million payment.
One of the key issues discussed during the defense board meeting in Kennewick was whether the mixing system in waste tanks in the vit plant would be adequate.
DOE considers the basic technical issue resolved, but told the defense board at the Kennewick meeting that it would conduct additional testing of the mixing system on a large scale. The defense board responded in late December with recommendations on how the test should be conducted.
Tamosaitis has filed suit in Benton County Superior Court claiming retaliation, and URS has countered that he sent an e-mail with inappropriate comments to consultants on the project, which upset DOE and experts. As a result, Bechtel told URS, which is a subcontractor to Bechtel National, to remove Tamosaitis from the project, according to URS.
The DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security conducted an investigation into the safety culture of the vit plant after Tamosaitis was removed from the project. It found that Bechtel National had established the framework for a strong safety culture at the vit plant, but improvements could be made.
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.
* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org; More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.