The Hanford Advisory Board mostly agreed that the safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant should be improved and how that could be accomplished during meetings Thursday and Friday in Kennewick.
However, the West Richland representative to the 31-seat board withheld approval, making this the first letter of advice in several years on which the board could not reach unanimous consensus, according to board staff.
More members had expressed doubts until the language in the document was softened to produce a more positive tone, taking out phrases such as "the broken safety culture."
"It's been a very long and tortuous journey to get where we are," said board member Ken Niles during discussion. But it's important to get the board on the record on the issue, he said.
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Safety culture at the plant became an issue almost two years ago when Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the plant, alleged he was dismissed from the project for raising concerns about design issues he believed could affect the future safe operation of the plant. The contractor and subcontractor on the project strongly deny that was the reason he was dismissed, saying his assignment was completed.
A comprehensive review by the Department of Energy Office of Health, Safety and Security, concluded in January that there was a reluctance by DOE and contractor employees to raise concerns related to future safe operations of the plant and some groups of contractor employees feared retaliation. The plant, formally called the Waste Treatment Plant, is being built to treat radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium.
Board members started work on the issue about eight months ago, leading to a round table discussion at a board meeting in February, when board members could not agree on what the problem was or what the solution should be, then a two-day workshop by some members in April.
Most of the board finally agreed to send a letter of advice to DOE Friday that said the DOE safety office, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and others have "found a disconcerting link between the inability of employees to raise concerns and the existence of unresolved technical issues."
The board commended DOE for taking the safety culture issues seriously, saying admitting there is a problem is the first step to solving it.
Most board members agreed to 14 steps DOE could take to "put the WTP back on track."
An independent and authoritative entity needs to drive nuclear safety as the overriding priority for the plant, the board said. That might be accomplished by the defense board, it said.
Some board members now have concerns that some Congressional Republicans have tried to dilute the authority of the defense board and that the DOE safety office, while independent of Hanford environmental cleanup offices, reports to the energy secretary.
The board also called for an independent design authority for the project. Bechtel National now is in charge of designing the plant and approving the design, but the contractor who must make the plant operate safely and efficiently long term based on that design has not been named.
It also is time to assemble another independent review team of technical experts to conduct a full review of the design and the technical basis for operating it, the board said. An independent review team six years ago identified 28 technical issues then that needed to be addressed and other issues have come up since then.
The defense board now is focused on a series of high level technical issues at the plant and DOE is making progress on them, but those issues should have been addressed long ago, said board member Dirk Dunning. Issues include whether plutonium particles will remain well mixed to prevent a criticality, whether flammable gases will build up and whether corrosion will damage parts of the plant that are unsafe for workers to make repairs.
Several behaviors need to be enforced, including protecting workers who raise concerns from retaliation, ensuring that personal relationships with contractors do not influence DOE staff and inviting critical analysis of work, the board said.
DOE should augment the current technical staff to better oversee contractor activities to make sure safety is a priority in design and then construction of the plant, the board said.
Some of the points raised were insulting to DOE, which does have qualified technical staff in place on the project and is doing regular safety assessments, said Jerry Peltier, who represents West Richland on the board and withheld his support, early in the discussion.
The key issue now is freezing the design of the plant, Peltier said.
The board's letter to DOE should be posted this week at www.hanford.gov under the Hanford Advisory Board section.