The Department of Energy will look at better managing its Hanford vitrification plant contract to balance the demands of cost and schedule with a strong safety culture, according to a plan released this week.
In addition, Energy Secretary Steven Chu could visit Hanford to make clear his safety culture expectations, the plan said.
DOE laid out the plan, which goes beyond Hanford to include other DOE sites, to implement Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board's June recommendations on improving safety culture at the vitrification plant. The plan also looked at underlying causes that led to the defense board's concern.
Safety culture, or worker and management attitudes toward safety, became an issue after Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager at the plant, alleged he was removed from the project in summer 2010 for raising technical concerns about the future safe operation of the plant.
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However, Bechtel National and its subcontractor, URS, deny that, saying his work assignment was completed and he wrote a disrespectful email. The $12.2 billion plant under construction will turn high-level radioactive waste left from past plutonium weapons production into a stable glass form for disposal starting in 2019.
The defense board investigated the safety culture at the plant, concluding in June 2011 that management suppressed dissent on technical issues and that there was a "chilled atmosphere adverse to safety."
DOE's response team for the defense board recommendations for improvement agreed that some technical staff at the Hanford vitrification plant hesitate to raise safety or technical concerns that might affect schedule or cost, according to the DOE implementation plan. They believe their managers may not support them or they find the resolution process is too difficult or too lengthy, it said.
Some staff also believe the Employee Concerns Program is ineffective and that management actions in implementing the program have reduced its value and credibility, the plan said.
"There is a need to do a better job of converting high level policy expectations for a strong safety culture into detailed guidance for implementation of those expectation," the plan said.
That employees have not only the right to raise concerns, but also the responsibility to raise concerns, and that they can do that without fear of retaliation is a message that DOE and its contractors must constantly reinforce, the plan said.
The safety culture at the vit plant also might have faltered when the project shifted from research and design of the plant to put more focus on finishing construction and preparing for startup, the plan said.
Construction started as the design was being done. As time between design and construction of individual elements of the plant shortened, tension developed between those resolving technical issues and those responsible for schedule and cost goals, the plan said.
Performance measure reported to DOE headquarters and contract performance incentives are focused on cost and schedule performance and "do not do enough to reinforce the safety culture concept by balancing these goals with emphasis aimed at sound, timely resolution of technical and safety-related issues," the plan said.
DOE and contractor management also need more knowledge and awareness of the overall topic of safety culture, the plan said.
"They must thoroughly understand and value elements such as the Differing Professional Opinion process, the Employee Concerns Program and treatment of staff who raise issues and concerns," the DOE plan said.
Managers' performance plans do not always include specific measures for meeting safety culture expectations, which would create an opportunity for holding managers accountable for developing and maintaining a safety-conscious work environment, the plan said.
Some technical issues that have been raised by personnel on the vitrification plant project take too long to resolve, the plan said. When issues are resolved, the decisions and their bases are not always communicated to the technical staff, it said.
DOE and Bechtel already have taken steps to strengthen the safety culture at the plant, according to the plan, which outlined additional steps DOE will take to comply with specific defense board recommendations.
DOE will revise the Bechtel contract performance evaluation plan and project performance measures to achieve balanced priorities and include safety culture elements, as part of its work to meet the safety board recommendation to "assert federal control at the highest level" over the plant's safety culture. The contract performance evaluation plan and performance measures will be revised to coincide with periodic award payments to Bechtel.
DOE also will review its contract with Bechtel and implement mechanisms to achieve balanced priorities and include safety culture elements. That could require contract negotiations with Bechtel if the contractor's potential pay is affected.
Safety and quality already are emphasized by Bechtel as the joint foundation for all performance at the plant and are required project performance, said Suzanne Heaston, Bechtel spokeswoman.
To make clear DOE expectations for safety culture, Energy Secretary Steven Chu will be a keynote speaker at a vitrification plant "town hall" meeting, the DOE plan said. While at Hanford, he will participate in additional meetings with vitrification plant employees to discuss safety culture and hear their opinions.
The DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security already has reviewed the safety culture at the vitrification plant and at Chu's direction is conducting a follow-up review with enhanced methods and resources to study organizational behavior. When the assessment is completed, DOE will ask for federal employees and their union representatives to be involved to develop actions based on the assessment, the plan said.
The union that represents DOE scientists and engineers filed a grievance alleging that DOE management violated safety orders and regulations at the vitrification plant.
The DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security review also will consider whether allegations by Tamosaitis either affected or continue to affect employee perceptions about safety culture at the vitrification plant. However, the assessment will not judge the merits of Tamosaitis' legal cases filed in Benton County and federal courts, DOE stressed in the implementation plan.
DOE will conduct additional safety culture reviews at other sites across the DOE complex to determine whether similar safety culture weaknesses exist, it said. While the focus will be on nuclear defense or construction sites, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland also will be asked to perform a self-assessment.
Town hall meetings also are planned across the DOE complex.