Department of Energy health officials plan a return visit at the end of the month to begin a follow-up assessment of the nuclear safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant.
They will be doing some things differently this visit after questions were raised about workers' comfort in raising issues in earlier interviews.
The DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security, or HSS, reviewed the nuclear safety culture at the vitrification plant in August 2010 and typically would have waited until all proposed improvements had been implemented to return.
But David Huizenga, the new DOE acting assistant manager for environmental management, asked for a follow-up as soon as possible, said Glenn Podonsky, the DOE chief of health, safety and security, during a visit to the Tri-Cities this week.
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The review last year was conducted after Walter Tamosaitis, a former research and technology manager at the plant, was abruptly removed from work on the plant in July 2010. He has filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging he lost his position for raising safety concerns about the future operation of the $12.2 billion plant. DOE contractor Bechtel National disagrees, saying he wrote a disrespectful email that upset DOE.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also looked at policies and attitudes toward safety at the plant and concluded that behavior by DOE and contractor management reinforces a subculture that deters workers from reporting and management from resolving technical safety concerns.
When DOE responded that those findings are not consistent with other reviews, including the HSS review, the defense board advised DOE to take a closer look at the data underlying the HSS review findings.
The executive summary of the review has been interpreted by some people to indicate that "everything is good," Podonsky said. But there are issues that need to be addressed and the body of the report lays out those issues, he said.
The report said that a significant number of employees interviewed were concerned that a reputation as a "troublemaker" would affect their employment as some of the labor-intensive work at the plant is completed. Several senior staff and managers said the situation with Tamosaitis contributed to a chilling effect that may reduce their willingness to raise technical or safety issues.
The review questioned whether management always "walked the talk" on safety issues.
The defense board said that workers interviewed for that HSS investigation were escorted to interviews by management, which could inhibit employees.
HSS is bringing in behavioral scientists to help train HSS employees on how to ask questions of vitrification plant workers in a way that will make them comfortable. HSS needs to make sure the people talking to the agency trust the agency, he said.
HSS employees already are trained in interviewing skills, but issues surrounding nuclear safety at the vitrification plant are so highly charged that an extra effort is being made, Podonsky said.
Interviews in the follow-up to the 2010 review will be done in a way that is more private in case workers don't want anyone to know they talked to HSS, he said.
Results will be confidential and discussed only in aggregate outside HSS, said William Eckroade, HSS deputy chief for operations.
The HSS visit the last week of this month will be used primarily to develop a plan and schedule for the followup to the initial review.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu also has committed to having HSS independently review the safety culture across the entire complex to provide insights. HSS is planning that review now, Podonsky said.
In the first phase of the national review, it will look at projects similar in size to the Hanford vitrification plant. Depending on what it sees in that first phase, it will look at particular groups across different DOE sites, such as union trade workers, he said.