Safety review: Vit plant culture is 'functional'

There is no widespread evidence of a chilled safety atmosphere or suppression of technical dissent at the Hanford vitrification plant, according to a new review.

The review report, released Thursday, was done by the Independent Safety and Quality Culture Assessment Team, as part of the Department of Energy's commitment to address earlier Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board findings. The team included executives in the nuclear field, particularly those with ties to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The team's findings were sharply at odds with a defense board investigation that concluded in June that failings in the safety culture of the $12.2 billion project were endangering its success.

The safety and quality culture "is functional. It is there," said Nils Diaz, vice chairman of the team that conducted the new investigation. "It needs to be improved, but it is not broken."

The independent team's review was able to go deeper into issues during a four-month project than the defense board and find the differences of opinions that left parties at odds, he said.

Some of the perception of a chilled atmosphere, with allegations of workers unwilling to raise issues about safe operation of the plant when it begins operating, was caused by slow resolution of technical issues, the new report concluded.

"Many technical or safety issues, whether new or recurrent, are raised to management ... but many are not resolved in a timely manner and frequently lack adequate feedback during or even after resolution," the report said.

That contributed to an impression that management is mostly focused on cost and schedule, the report said. However, management has taken steps recently to correct that, such as forming a team to resolve waste mixing issues at the vitrification plant, it said.

The plant is being built to turn radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium into a stable glass form for disposal. Among technical issues has been whether waste would remain mixed well enough in the plant to prevent the small possibility of a criticality.

The nuclear safety and quality culture on the project had been improving, but the dismissal of Walter Tamosaitis from the project caused a major disruption, the report found.

Tamosaitis, the former engineering manager for the project, was removed from the project in summer 2010 and responded by filing a lawsuit claiming he was removed for raising technical issues. Bechtel National, the DOE contractor on the project, and URS, its prime subcontractor, have disagreed.

"This continuing issue, with a potential for a chilling impact, was exacerbated by the failure of management to timely explain the basis for its actions," the new report said.

Communications should be improved not only with employees but also with the public to establish and sustain trust, the report said.

It also addressed tension between the engineering department on the project and the department responsible for environmental and nuclear safety.

An employee survey written by the team found that engineering department employees believed the project had a strong nuclear safety culture. In contrast, the nuclear safety department's survey results questioned whether a zero tolerance policy against retaliation was enforced.

DOE and Bechtel need to implement specific project management oversight processes to fully align nuclear safety with project execution, the report said.Members on the team also were disturbed by the deteriorating relationship between DOE and the defense board.

A contentious 2010 public hearing in Kennewick and then a defense board investigation into allegations of witness tampering at the hearing "had the unwanted effect of instigating a series of hostile reactions and interactions that have burdened the normally constructive relationships among the board, DOE and its contractors," the report said.

The review results were sharply criticized by Hanford Challenge, which said they downplayed the seriousness of safety culture problems at Hanford.

"The report seems to say, if only the (defense board) and the concerned employees would stop raising safety issues, people would get along better," said Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge, executive director, in a statement. "However, this will not result in a safe or effective plant."

In a memo to vitrification plant employees Thursday, Bechtel project director Frank Russo, repeated Diaz's statement that "it is apparent that both DOE and its contractor are committed to the overall safety mission" of the project.

Safety is the project's top priority and Bechtel has not and will not compromise safety for cost, schedule or any other reason, Russo told employees.

The review identified many opportunities for improvement, but it also recognized that significant improvements have been made in recent years to improve the project's safety culture, he said in the message.

DOE will pursue all areas of concern identified in the report, said DOE spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler. Another review also is being conducted by the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security. Once that is completed, DOE will develop a comprehensive set of actions to strengthen the safety culture, she said.The review is posted at isqcat.com.