Technical issues at the Hanford vitrification plant could have been resolved earlier if there had been more attention to feedback from employees and others, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Tuesday.
Moniz made the comments at a hearing of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board on Department of Energy safety culture, which was webcast from Washington, D.C.
Worker reluctance to raise issues or management reluctance to listen to concerns might have contributed to those technical issues, safety board members said.
Workers and managers need to feel they can discuss issues and that differences of opinion on technical matters will be resolved in a professional way, Moniz said.
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"Those on the front lines I think have a lot to offer in terms of how work should go forward," Moniz said.
Safety culture issues the board identified in 2011 hampered resolution of technical problems, Chairman Peter Winokur said. When the board came to Kennewick in 2012, it heard that some problems, such as possible corrosion within the plant, had not been addressed for more than a decade.
When Moniz became energy secretary a year and a half ago, "my technical judgment, let alone my managerial judgment, was that it would be very unsafe to execute the plan of record without resolving those technical issues," he said.
Progress has been made on technical issues at the vitrification plant in the last nine months, but they are not resolved, he said.
Without resolution, DOE and the state have not been able to agree on new court-enforced consent degree deadlines for the vitrification plant, Moniz said. The state wants a lengthy and detailed list of deadlines, but DOE is determined to wait until it knows more about technical issue resolution to commit to deadlines.
Deadlines can drive work and compromise safety, Moniz said, using the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico as an example. The immediate response after the national radioactive waste repository was shut down because of a fire earlier this year was to set dates for a restart. But Moniz was unwilling to do that without a recovery plan in place.
Although DOE and the state of Washington could not agree on new consent decree deadlines for the vitrification plant at Hanford and have asked the federal court to intervene, they have both agreed to the fundamentals of a phased approach to waste treatment, Moniz said.
"The driver of that was precisely the unresolved technical issues," he said.
Both the state and DOE have agreed that the best plan is to start glassifying low-activity radioactive waste at the vitrification plant to prepare it for disposal, while technical issues that affect glassification of high-level radioactive waste are resolved.
A follow-up assessment of the safety culture at the vitrification plant this year found no significant improvement in employee perceptions despite two years of work by DOE to resolve the issue. In fact, some of the trends were negative, board members said.
A safety culture that is decades old will take time to change and will require commitment, particularly because the concerns identified are so great, said Mark Whitney, DOE acting assistant secretary for environmental management.
"I think we have the right team in place to do that" under the leadership of Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, Whitney said.
The Office of River Protection has found some actions to improve safety culture have not been effective, but others have been, Whitney said. Good ideas have been implemented that can be used to improve safety culture at other DOE sites.
Another follow-up review of the safety culture is planned for the Hanford vitrification plant, giving officials there a year to make improvements, Moniz said.
That sends a strong message and if there is not improvement, there will "be a more stern message," he said.
Some improvement in safety culture at DOE sites also can be driven by how contracts are structured as early as the bid request process, Moniz said, and what incentives they include for companies hired to do environmental cleanup work.
DOE has recruited two individuals with labor experience who will be working with procurement officials on how contracts are structured, he said.
DOE also has refocused performance evaluations for vitrification plant contractor Bechtel National to put more focus on technical resolution and self-identification of problems, Whitney said.
Within a few weeks a charter will be completed to form a new DOE safety culture improvement panel to manage consistent improvements and maintain them, Moniz said.
DOE also has focused on a new training program for senior leadership across DOE because leadership behavior is a driver of the safety culture, Moniz said. About 2,000 leaders and managers in DOE have taken the training. Next it will be offered to supervisors.
DOE also has had sites across the DOE cleanup complex do self-assessments of safety culture in response to the 2011 recommendation by the safety board. Results have tended to be more positive than the independent reviews, including at the New Mexico waste repository.
A review at the repository found the safety culture was mature, but a fire 13 months later led to an in-depth look that found the safety culture was troubled.
"We are focusing on the guidance for conducting self assessments and increasing the rigor and the structure and the consistency of those," Whitney said.
A link to the recording of the hearing is posted at www.dnfsb.gov.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; email@example.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews