The Hanford Advisory Board may have ended up more confused than ever after trying to get to the bottom of what it will take to operate the Hanford vitrification plant safely.
After being unable to reach agreement on what to say to the Department of Energy and its regulators on the issue during committee meetings, it took the unusual step of holding a "sounding board" to let all 31 members plus their alternates have a say at at its recent full board meeting in Richland.
The board heard DOE officials describe the systems in place to ensure that safety concerns are taken seriously and what improvements are planned. But then it also heard from current and former Hanford workers who showed up for the public comment period to say the system is broken.
"So what are we supposed to think?" asked Ken Niles, who represents the state of Oregon on the board, at the end of the meeting. "It's very hard for us to understand where the rubber meets the road."
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Although the discussion was wide ranging, the key issue was whether workers who have concerns about technical issues at the vitrification plant that could affect the safe operations of the plant can freely raise those issues without fear of retaliation.
The issue has been contentious since 2010 when Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the plant, alleged he was dismissed from the project for raising concerns about design issues he believed could affect the future operations of the plant. Bechtel National, which is designing and building the plant, has said that is not why he was released.
As construction continues on the plant to meet a 2019 deadline for the start of operations, the project still has technical issues to be resolved, including keeping high level radioactive waste well mixed to prevent a criticality or buildup of flammable gases. Questions also have been raised about whether piping and tanks in the plant that will contain high level radioactive waste will corrode, requiring repairs in areas not planned for human entry because of high radiation levels.
"We can't afford for the Waste Treatment Plant to be a failure," said Paige Knight, who represents Hanford Watch on the board.
Recent history shows the importance of listening to employees who have technical safety concerns, said Tom Carpenter, who represents Hanford Challenge on the board.
Scientists had raised concerns about the O-rings that sealed joints on the Space Shuttle Challenger before the failure of a joint caused it to disintegrate in flight, he said. Employees at the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear plant had urged that the tsunami wall be raised, he said. And there also were whistleblowers who warned of potential problems before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he said.
Everyone on a project needs to be able to raise concerns, not just top managers, Carpenter said. DOE should be dealing with reprisals against workers who raise concerns or even allegations of reprisals, he said.
He is advocating the adoption policies for the Department of Energy similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's, which used to be the subject of regular headlines until it enacted a strong model to protect workers who raised issues, Carpenter said. Retaliation can be grounds for civil penalties or suspension of a license.
Hanford officials would do well to follow three principles, said Maynard Plahuta, who represents Benton County on the board.
Cost and schedule demands cannot overrule safety, he said. The design and operational safety must be integrated. And the frequent critic should not be disregarded, because one criticism may reveal a key issue, he said.
Murray Thorson, a former vit plant engineer who now works at the Hanford tank farms on related issues, said potential and likely crippling flaws are imbedded in the design.
Having no long-term operator for the vitrification plant named yet leaves Bechtel with the responsibility of designing the plant and approving the design. Bechtel's contract lasts only through commissioning of the plant, and then it will be turned over to an operator.
That operator needs to be concurring now that the design will work long term, Thorson said.
DOE's plan submitted in response to recommendations from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board takes good steps toward addressing the vitrification safety plant issue, but it misses a component, he said.
"The culture rewards people who don't reveal problems and punishes those who do and fix (them)," he said.
Also offering public comment were Tamosaitis and two former Hanford workers on other projects who said workers who raise issues at Hanford put their jobs at risk.
Time will be required to improve the safety culture at Hanford, said DOE officials. The plan offered to the defense board has actions that are expected to be completed as late as spring and summer 2013.
Several assessments of the safety culture at the vitrification plant have been done, with varying results.
Among "learning opportunities" in the assessments were statements that the DOE Employee Concerns Program and Differing Professional Opinion program are working effectively and that Bechtel has enhanced new employee orientation and continuing employee training on issue identification and resolution, DOE told the advisory board.
Among steps DOE is taking are forming a Safety Culture Team to develop and track corrective actions and holding all-employee meetings, in addition to a comprehensive plan submitted to the defense board.
Some advisory board members were encouraged, saying that DOE is taking safety issues seriously and they see improvements.
Although other board members were less convinced the issue was being fully resolved, most seemed to agree that they were discouraged that the board once again needed to discuss safety.
"We've been down this road before," Niles said and quoted from a board document.
More than 14 years ago the board told DOE and its regulators that there should be visible management and worker accountability for any retribution against employees for reporting safety issues.