The director of a Department of Energy investigative office said Hanford vitrification plant subcontractor URS appeared to interfere in an investigation of potential nuclear safety noncompliance.
URS requested that vit plant senior manager Donna Busche, who has raised concerns, not be interviewed until her manager was available to observe the discussion, according to a memo from John Boulden III, director of the Office of Enforcement and Oversight for the Office of Health, Safety and Security.
Busche, the manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the plant, filed an employee concern this month with the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security, or HSS. The $12.2 billion plant is being built to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium.
The HSS office earlier conducted a nuclear safety investigation to assess whether employees on the project were free to raise concerns -- particularly technical issues that might affect the future safe operation of the plant -- without fear of retaliation.
After an initial nuclear safety investigation, concerns were raised that some employees did not feel free to speak their minds in the safety culture investigation, in part because they were escorted to interviews by management. A follow-up investigation was conducted.
In the incident this month, Busche said in her employees concern filing that she heard a senior vice president for business assurance at URS headquarters was "calling in a favor."
The senior vice president asked investigators not to interview Busche or view presentations by her while her supervisor was not available, according to the document.
Busche said she viewed the request "as an attempt to materially interfere, and obstruct, the ability of the Office of Nuclear Safety Enforcement investigation to conduct a full investigation into potential noncompliances with nuclear safety requirements."
Busche already has an open Department of Labor complaint, claiming she has been discriminated against for being a whistleblower on issues related to safe nuclear operations of the vitrification plant.
Just before the initial HSS visit to Hanford early this month for the investigation of potential nuclear safety noncompliance, URS contacted HSS and requested that Busche be removed from the interview schedule until her supervisor was available to observe the interview, said Boulden in a Tuesday memo. It was sent to David Huizenga, the DOE senior adviser for environmental management.
HSS told URS that it could not remove Busche from any scheduled interviews, nor would it view as appropriate the last-minute addition of her supervisor to the interviews, according to Boulden.
Despite that, Busche's supervisor did attend the initial large-group design process discussions, which were held March 6, Boulden wrote in the memo.
"At the time, the investigation team leader decided to not make an issue of the supervisor's participation due to the general nature and content of the discussion," the memo said. "However, we now believe that the tension we observed during those discussions may have degraded the exchange of information with the team."
HSS needs to conduct the remainder of its investigation through free and open communications with project staff without interference by contractor senior management, the memo said. The investigation team will make a second visit to Hanford in May.
Boulden asked for cooperation in ensuring that management for Bechtel National, the prime contractor on the project, and URS fully understand their responsibility to support the investigation.
Investigators should be provided "unfettered access to all documents and personnel they require to perform their investigations," Huizenga said in response in a Wednesday memo to Scott Samuelson, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection.
On Friday, Samuelson sent letters to contractors under the Office of River Protection.
"No form of interference with interactions between individuals and reviewers is acceptable," Samuelson said.
Busche's concern is being reviewed, URS spokesman Keith Woods said in a statement.
"We welcome employee concerns and encourage employees to be open and to raise issues," he said.
DOE takes its enforcement and oversight responsibilities very seriously, and is committed to ensuring that DOE and contractor employees feel comfortable freely raising safety and technical concerns and communicating openly about these issues, said DOE spokeswoman Niketa Kumar.
DOE expects all organizations involved "to demonstrate commitment to a strong nuclear safety culture and cooperate fully with all investigations," she said.
The letter to Hanford contractors was sent the day after the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board held a daylong hearing in Kennewick to discuss nuclear safety culture and technical problems at the vitrification plant.
The flawed safety culture of the vitrification plant project appears to be a factor in the project's problems in identifying and resolving technical issues that could affect the safe and efficient operation of the plant, said board Chairman Peter Winokur.
DOE has submitted a plan to the defense board laying out how it will improve nuclear safety culture at the vit plant and make sure every employee is free to raise concerns and that concerns are promptly addressed.