Defense safety board blasts DOE, Bechtel

RICHLAND — Failings in the safety culture at Hanford's vitrification plant are endangering the success of the $12.2 billion project, according to a strongly worded report from the national Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

The board's investigation found that Department of Energy and contractor project management behavior reinforce a plant subculture "that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgment and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns," the report said.

Accusations included burying technical reports that raised safety issues, admonishing an expert whose testimony to the board differed from DOE policy and creating an atmosphere that discouraged workers from raising technical issues that could affect the plant's safe operation.

The report called for Energy Secretary Steven Chu to step in, saying prompt, major improvements are needed and will only be successful and lasting if he champions them.

The board began investigating management attitudes and policies toward safety at the plant after Walter Tamosaitis, the former engineering manager for the project, alleged he lost his position because he raised technical issues that he believed could affect the plant's safe operation.

The investigation was expanded after the board held a public hearing in Kennewick in October on safety issues and additional concerns were raised, including an allegation DOE had tampered with witnesses at the hearing.

The plant, still under construction, is required to start treating the 53 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks at Hanford by 2019. The waste, which includes high-level radioactive and hazardous chemical waste, is left from past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

In a letter and report to Chu released Monday, defense board Chairman Peter Winokur said the investigation found that:

w A chilled atmosphere exists on safety issues.

w And DOE and contractor management have suppressed technical dissent.

The board interviewed 45 people and studied 30,000 pages of documents.

Chilled atmosphere

Tension at the vit plant, or Waste Treatment Plant, between organizations charged with resolution of technical and safety issues is unusually high, the report said.

"This unhealthy tension has rendered the WTP project's formal processes to resolve safety issues largely ineffective," it said. "DOE reviews and investigations have failed to recognize the significance of this fact."

When Tamosaitis was abruptly removed from the project a day after raising safety concerns, "This sent a strong message to other WTP project employees that individuals who question current practices or provide alternative points of view are not considered team players and will be dealt with harshly," the report said.

The board also found that raising safety-related technical concerns, especially those affecting schedule or budget, was discouraged and concerns were opposed or rejected without review.

"Project management subtly, consistently and effectively communicated to employees that differing professional opinions counter to decisions reached by management were not welcome," it said.

One high-ranking expert on the project said he felt next in line after Tamosaitis for removal from the project for refusing to yield to technically unsound positions advanced by DOE and project management, and a senior DOE official validated that concern, the report said.

The investigation concluded that the existing DOE employee concerns program was not effective. One safety expert told investigators that employees did not use the program because those running it buried issues brought to them.

The DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security did perform an independent review of the project's safety culture, finding isolated concerns about retaliation for raising safety issues. However, the defense board said that workers interviewed in that DOE investigation were escorted to interviews by management, which could inhibit employees.

"In its own way, DOE's decision to allow management to be involved in the HSS investigation raises concerns about safety culture," the board report found.

Although the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security investigation found Bechtel had effective formal processes for managing technical concerns raised by employees and for managing complex technical issues, the defense board found the processes were infrequently used. They also are vulnerable to budget and schedule pressures, the board review said.

Bechtel National suppressed a July 2009 study on the possible spread of contaminants off Hanford in the event of a problem, such as the failure of stack filters, the board found.

DOE had not seen the study when it hired an independent consultant to investigate the issue in fall 2010. The consultant's work led to a determination that more conservative values were needed in the safety analyses that determine the need for safety-related controls at the plant.

The problem occurred again at the Kennewick public hearing when an expert witness called by the board made comments contrary to DOE's position. The expert later said he or she felt pressured to change testimony to DOE's position but refused.

"The testimony of several witnesses confirms that the expert witness was verbally admonished by the highest level of DOE line management at DOE's debriefing meeting following this session of the hearing," the report said.

In another instance, an August 2010 review related to plutonium particles and the potential for a criticality in the vit plant languished until February 2011, the defense board report said. The findings could require significant changes made to the plant design, the report said.

Chu's control sought

The board is recommending that Chu assert control to establish a strong safety culture at the plant and determine if similar weaknesses affect other projects. It also called for a "non-adversarial review" of Tamosaitis's removal and his current treatment by DOE and contractor management.

Tamosaitis said he was grateful that a government agency is identifying the cultural and technical issues. It's a possible step both toward showing young engineers that a punitive, retaliatory environment is not the way to manage and also toward seeing the plant operate safely and correctly, he said.

"The DOE has been challenged by the defense board to make meaningful its empty promises of zero tolerance against reprisal against those who raise safety concerns," said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge.

Bechtel is committed to a strong safety culture and welcomes the opportunity to review any information that will help further enhance its programs and culture, said Bechtel spokeswoman Suzanne Heaston. Over the past year it has enhanced management communication of commitments and expectations for safety and training of more than 1,500 employees and their managers, she said.

DOE will review the defense board's recommendations closely in coming weeks to identify if additional steps are necessary to further strengthen its approach to safety, said DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman.

"At every level of the Department of Energy, we take our obligation to protect the safety of our workers and the public very seriously," she said in a prepared statement. "We are committed to fostering a questioning, safety-driven attitude."

That's a great statement, Tamosaitis said. "All they have to do is live by it," he said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.