A significant number of federal and contractor staff on the Hanford vitrification plant project reported they were reluctant to raise safety or quality concerns, according to a new assessment of safety culture at the project released Friday.
The Department of Energy's Office of Health, Safety and Security, HSS, conducted the review as follow-up to an initial review released in October, and the follow-up included a stronger message calling for improvements.
The latest review by DOE's health and safety organization, which is independent of the DOE organization responsible for Hanford, found some Bechtel National groups believed fear of retaliation inhibited identification of problems at the vitrification plant.
The plant is being built to turn radioactive waste left from plutonium weapons production into a stable glass form for disposal in 2019. Its safe operation could be jeopardized if design and construction work now do not meet high standards of quality, the new report stated.
"The willingness of employees to raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation is an essential element of a healthy safety culture, and therefore significant management attention is needed to improve the safety culture at (the vitrification plant)," said a memo from HSS chief officer Glenn Podonsky that accompanied the new report.
In addition to concerns about safety culture, the report also raised concerns about the project's processes for managing safety issues.
There is no fear of retaliation among DOE workers on the project, but "there is a definite unwillingness and uncertainty among employees about the ability to openly challenge management decisions," the report said. "There are definite perceptions that there is not an environment conducive to raising concerns or where management wants or willingly listens to concerns."
Most employees believe constructive criticism is not encouraged, the report stated.
Bechtel, the DOE contractor for the project, needs to be more transparent with its employees and the public for trust to improve, the report stated.
Bechtel "has become very adept in portraying itself in the most favorable position possible," said one team that worked on the project. "While the organization does not deny that it is dealing with significant issues, it handles the communication of these issues in such a way as to diminish their importance."
Bechtel has taken many actions to address specific recommendations in the earlier report by HSS, but it has not adequately evaluated the significance of the collective safety culture issues raised in it and several other reports and reviews since summer 2010, according to the latest review.
It also needs to do a better job documenting safety issues and making sure they are appropriately categorized and resolved, the report stated.
It gave an example of a difficult but unspecified issued raised in October 2010 that was inappropriately downgraded, leading to an "extended, contentious, and poorly managed causual analysis activity (that) resulted in strong negative feelings among personnel in several groups."
Safety culture became an issue in summer 2010 after whistleblower Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager at the plant, took his concerns to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and later filed lawsuits.
After the earlier safety cultural review by HSS, Energy Secretary Steven Chu cited what he saw as the review's positive conclusions as he and the safety board disagreed about the extent of the safety culture problems at the vitrification plant.
The defense board urged him to take a second look, and last month Chu gave the defense board a wide-ranging plan to implement the board's recommendations and make improvements in safety culture at the vitrification plant.
"Ensuring that employees are comfortable freely raising safety and technical concerns -- and that they feel confident that their concerns will be effectively addressed -- will continue to be a major focus of the department's efforts as we move forward," Jen Stutsman, a DOE Headquarters spokeswoman, said Friday.
Scott Samuelson, the manager of the Hanford DOE office with vitrification plant responsibilities, sent employees a memo stating DOE is committed to encouraging a questioning work environment for everyone from workers with shovels in the ground to the energy secretary.
"I want to re-emphasize how important it is for everyone to have a questioning attitude, to stop and ask questions if something doesn't seem right and, if there is a concern, to raise it so it can be addressed," said Frank Russo, Bechtel project director, in a message to employees.
He pointed out that in addition to the latest review, Bechtel had also heard from the defense board, an independent assessment team and vitrification plant employees regarding safety culture.
"Each group provides important input, and we are taking action to address all recommendations," he told employees.