DOE told to take second look at vit plant safety culture

Actions proposed by the Department of Energy to strengthen the nuclear safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant represent a start, but DOE should take a closer look at the issue, said the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in a letter released Monday.

The defense board remains concerned that DOE does not agree with the findings of a defense board investigation into the nuclear safety culture of the plant. The safety culture concerns are related to the safe operation of the plant now under construction to turn radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal.

"The disparity between the stated acceptance and disagreement with the findings makes it difficult for the board to assess the response," said the letter sent to Energy Secretary Steven Chu by defense board Chairman Peter Winokur on Friday.

It asked that DOE take another look at items such as union grievances related to vitrification plant design issues and the underlying data in a safety culture review by the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security.

It also said DOE could learn meaningful lessons if it reviewed the effects on safety culture stemming from the way Walter Tamosaitis was removed from the project and his current treatment.

It has set a deadline of Sept. 19 for DOE to address those items.

The safety culture investigation by the defense board began after Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager at the plant, was abruptly removed from work on the plant in July 2010. He has filed a whistleblower lawsuit, alleging he lost his position for raising safety concerns, but DOE contractor Bechtel National disagrees, saying he wrote a disrespectful email that upset DOE.

Tamosaitis continues to work for Bechtel subcontractor URS, but without meaningful work in an office he shares with a copy machine, according to Tamosaitis.

The defense board recommended in June that DOE conduct a nonadversarial review of Tamosaitis' removal and current treatment. DOE replied June 30 that it would meet that recommendation by supporting an ongoing Department of Labor review of Tamosaitis' case.

Perhaps the defense board did not clearly communicate the recommendation, said the new letter, which called for the review of how Tamosaitis' treatment was affecting the safety culture at the plant.

DOE did agree to take several actions to strengthen the nuclear safety culture, including an independent review of safety culture across the DOE complex nationwide.

On Monday, employees at the vitrification plant were told that an all-employee survey was planned soon to provide data for the independent review team.

"The team has been given a broad mandate and wide latitude to define for themselves the scope of their nuclear safety and quality culture review and to determine the actions they deem necessary to provide independent conclusions and recommendations," said Frank Russo, Bechtel director of the vitrification plant, in a message to employees.

But while agreeing to take actions, Chu said in the June 30 letter that the board's findings on the plant's safety culture "appear to rely on a number of accounts describing the actions and behaviors of both contractor and DOE personnel that we believe may have been misunderstood by the board."

The conclusions of the board are not consistent with other reviews of the safety culture, including one by the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security, or HSS, Chu wrote.

The defense board, in its current letter, recommended that DOE take a closer look at the underlying data in that HSS report, especially the data from interviews with management and engineering personnel.

It also advised a closer look at public comments received on the defense board's June safety culture recommendations and at union grievances.

Richard McNulty, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 788, filed a stop work order this month when DOE told Bechtel it could weld the tops on tanks that have not been shown to keep high level radioactive waste well mixed.

If the waste does not remain mixed, a nuclear criticality or build up of flammable gas could occur.

When the stop work order was dismissed, the union, which represents DOE scientists and engineers, filed a grievance saying that safety criteria that had not been met could result in the injury or death of workers or catastrophic failure of the facility.

DOE "has effectively disenfranchised its own engineering and safety staff, destroying the safety culture in the process," the grievance said.

Bechtel said Monday that proceeding with the welds would keep the project on schedule while a large scale mixing test was conducted. However, if the test shows a problem, steps would be taken to modify the tanks and that could include removing the tops of the tanks.

"The tanks won't be installed until the tests prove out," said Bechtel spokeswoman Suzanne Heaston.

When the vitrification plant begins operating, the less-challenging waste will be treated first, she said. The plant as designed will be able to treat the vast majority of the high level waste held in underground tanks now, but additional testing is needed to prove it can treat the remainder of the waste, she said.

DOE said it was reviewing the defense board's latest letter.

"We always take their advice and recommendations seriously and will be continuing to work closely with the board to further strengthen our approach to safety at the (vitrification) plant, including promoting a robust and questioning safety culture," said Lindsey Geisler, DOE spokeswoman.

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