Controversy continues to surround vit plant safety culture

A recent independent review of the safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant shows that the culture is flawed, said Peter Winokur, the chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

That is contrary to the conclusion drawn by the panel that conducted the review.

Winokur's reaction was among recent developments in the intractable dispute about whether concerns about safe operation of the $12.2 billion plant are being raised and addressed without retaliation. Developments include:

* Walter Tamosaitis testified before a Senate subcommittee on whistleblower issues, winning Congressional sympathy for his predicament and biting criticism of the message his treatment is sending to other federal and contractor workers.

* Bechtel National responded to a lawsuit filed by Tamosaitis with a motion for summary judgment. The motion said Tamosaitis has no basis for his claim that Bechtel interfered to get him removed from the vitrification plant project because he raised safety issues.

* Energy Secretary Steven Chu issued a five-page memo to department heads across the nationwide DOE complex saying that safety culture issues that have arisen in a variety of forums underline the need for intensified effort.

The issue at Hanford came to light in summer 2010 when Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager at the plant, told the defense board that safety and technology issues at the plant were being suppressed and asked for an investigation.

He has said he believes he was escorted off the project and reassigned to a basement office shared with copy machines for raising safety issues. Bechtel National, the DOE contractor for the vit plant, and URS, Tamosaitis' employer and the main subcontractor on the project, strongly disagree with his allegations.

The plant is being built to turn high-level and other radioactive waste left from past production of plutonium for weapons use into a stable glass form for disposal starting in 2019.

The defense board investigated after Tamosaitis raised issues and concluded that a chilled atmosphere exists on safety issues at the project, and that DOE and contractor management have suppressed technical dissent.

The board remains concerned about several issues, including whether inadequate mixing could lead to a criticality, if flammable gases might build up in tanks and piping, and if erosion and corrosion will damage vessels holding radioactive waste in the plant.

Key parts of the plant will treat high level radioactive waste, making it unsafe for workers to enter and correct problems in areas that will be highly radioactive once processing starts at the plant.

After the defense board concluded in June that failings in the safety culture at the plant were endangering its success, DOE responded with steps that included an independent review.

That review concluded last week that there was no widespread evidence of a chilled safety atmosphere or suppression of technical dissent.

"That's not how I see it," Winokur said. When he reads the review report, he sees all the indications of a flawed safety culture, he said.

He pointed to findings that the pro- cess to resolve significant and visible safety issues frequently are slow and require "persistent advocacy and endurance by the proponent."

The time it takes issues to get resolved has the potential to discourage individuals from raising them "due to the individual burden associated with the lack of responsiveness from the system," the review report said.

In addition, the report found tensions were "unusually high" between work groups in charge of completing design of the plant and advancing construction, and work groups charged with resolving technical issues and making sure the plant meets regulations related to safe operations.

Winokur said that although a majority of workers might feel free to raise issues without fear of retaliation, it is significant that key individuals believe the safety atmosphere is chilled.

In addition to allegations by Tamosaitis, Donna Busche, the manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the plant, has filed a federal complaint, claiming she was discriminated against for being a whistleblower on issues related to safe nuclear operations of the plant. Bechtel denies the allegations.

The union that represents DOE scientists and engineers also has filed a grievance alleging that DOE management violated safety orders and regulations.

The independent review is one part of DOE's response to the defense board's critical findings in its investigation of the vit plant safety culture. The energy secretary is expected to release DOE's plan around the first of the year to address recommendations made by the defense board after its investigation.

Winokur said he is encouraged that Chu issued the memo this week that said "no one who expresses a safety concern need fear retribution or penalty for stepping forward with a concern." The defense board had called on Chu to assert federal control at the highest level.

"DOE strives to provide an open culture that not only embraces, but also actively seeks out evidence of potential problems so that any problems can be corrected promptly," the memo said. No contractor or federal employee should ever feel unable to raise safety issues, it said.

He and Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman, who also signed the memo, are embarking on a broad assessment of safety culture within DOE to better understand where improvements are needed, the memo said.

Dismissal requested

Bechtel has asked the Benton County Superior Court to dismiss the lawsuit Tamosaitis filed against it, arguing he was not wronged.

Tamosaitis remains employed by URS and continues to receive his full salary, including the same percentage pay raise he received the previous two years, the summary judgment motion said. It claims he suffered no monetary damages.

Tamosaitis had known for months that his work assignment was coming to an end and had been looking for a new assignment within URS, according to the summary judgment motion. The final technical issue identified for resolution by an outside technical panel, the issue of keeping tank waste well mixed within the plant to prevent a criticality and other problems, was scheduled to be resolved to meet a deadline June 30. Tamosaitis was dismissed from the plant July 1.

Bechtel has said that Tamosaitis was dismissed from the project because his duties had come to an end and because he wrote a disrespectful memo to consultants concerning the mixing issue.

At one point, Tamosaitis provided URS a list of 11 jobs that interested him, and Bechtel said that a few weeks before he was dismissed from the project he had no idea where he would be assigned next. However, he was soliciting a role in the team that had been working on mixing issues prior to the June 30 deadline.

Bechtel also is arguing that the issues Tamosaitis raised were as part of his routine job, not an example of whistleblowing, and that he and others were asked to bring forward the issues.

Jack Sheridan, Tamosaitis' attorney, agreed that Tamosaitis had been looking for his next assignment for months, as is usual for Hanford workers assigned to specific projects to be completed.

But then Tamosaitis had been tapped to lead the team that was addressing the mixing safety issue, because even though it was declared closed, more work was planned, Sheridan said. An announcement and organization chart had been drafted, his attorney said.

When Tamosaitis showed up at a meeting to discuss routine details of his new assignment, he was told he was being dismissed from the project and was escorted from the building, Sheridan said. Although Tamosaitis continues to be paid, he has been has been assigned little meaningful work since, Tamosaitis has said.

Sheridan called Tamosaitis "a company man" who was trying to get vit plant leaders to responsibly close the mixing issue, not by changing engineering standards but through good science and engineering. After presenting a lengthy list of technical issues at a meeting planned to identify any lingering issues, he was removed from the project, Tamosaitis has alleged.

Sheridan characterized Tamosaitis' memo -- the one that Bechtel said was disrespectful and contributed to his dismissal -- as an effort to get consultants to raise the mixing issue so it would be resolved.

Tamosaitis testifies

Tamosaitis told his side of the story this week -- including his assignment to a basement office -- to a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ad hoc subcommittee hearing on whistleblower protection for workers on federal projects.

"So everyone -- so every day you are an example to all the workers there, whether they're federal employees or Bechtel employees, don't say anything or you too will be banished to the basement?" asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the subcommittee.

"Yes, Senator, very directly," Tamosaitis answered.

She called him a walking billboard to other workers to "keep their mouth shut."

"It's just unbelievable to me that we've allowed this to occur," she said.

"As Secretary Chu and senior management at the Department have made clear time and again, retribution for raising safety concerns will not be tolerated," said DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman after the hearing.

"We are committed to continuing to improve our approach to safety at the (vitrification) plant, including making sure that technical and safety issues are addressed in an effective manner," she said.

Tamosaitis said he doesn't regret raising safety issues on the project. Potential safety threats at the vitrification plant, including the potential for a criticality or explosion of flammable gas, are serious, he said.

"Despite my career being ended, I would do it again because it was the right thing to do," he said. "Given the tools, more people like me will stand up to waste, fraud, abuse, bad practices and poor quality in government contracts."

* More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com