Critics say DOE is limiting safety oversight at Hanford and at other nuclear sites

Hanford cleanup project uses mock-up training facility

Mike Douglas of CH2MHill Plateau Remediation Company tells about a mock-up training facility for cleanup workers using remote operated equipment at Hanford's 324 Building.
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Mike Douglas of CH2MHill Plateau Remediation Company tells about a mock-up training facility for cleanup workers using remote operated equipment at Hanford's 324 Building.

The Hanford nuclear reservation and other sites will be less safe under a new order issued by the Department of Energy that appears to limit a federal safety board’s access, critics say.

The Department of Energy issued a new order in May outlining how it plans to interact with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The board was created by Congress to make recommendations to the energy secretary on safety issues at Hanford and elsewhere.

The board, along with nuclear facility watchdog groups across the nation and the Energy Communities Alliance, have raised concerns that the order appears to reduce the board’s access to nuclear facilities and information.

“Within just the past several years, the safety board identified numerous concerns about the build-up of explosive and flammable hydrogen gases in the Hanford waste tanks,” said Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge executive director, in a statement.

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The board has also raised safety issues at the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction at Hanford, including controlling unplanned nuclear reactions and flaws in the design and construction of electrical systems, he said.

“These were issues the board raised because DOE and its contractor had failed to self-identify or correct them,” he said.

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The Energy Community Alliance, representing local governments near Hanford and other DOE sites, says it depends on the safety board to provide information about the risk of activities to communities that would be most impacted by a nuclear accident.

A public hearing last week in Washington, D.C., did not appear to ease the concerns of the safety board that it will receive the cooperation it needs to provide independent assessments of safety issues at Hanford and other nuclear weapons sites.

The hearing, the second of three scheduled, was the first time Anne White, DOE’s top environmental cleanup official, testified before the safety board about the new order and sought to reassure board members that it could continue to get the timely access to information it needs.

“I like what I hear from the Department of Energy on this order. I don’t like what I read in the order,” said board Chairman Bruce Hamilton, at the end of the meeting.

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Tearing down Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant has been a high hazard project, with 42 Hanford workers inhaling or ingesting particles of plutonium in 2017. Courtesy Department of Energy

The board has previously told Energy Secretary Rick Perry that its current four members are apprehensive that the order appears to make the following changes:

Allows DOE to decide what access to facilities, personnel and information the board and its staff have at Hanford and other DOE sites.

Limits the board’s oversight to the safety of people outside the Hanford nuclear reservation and other sites, excluding safety of the workers on site.

Allows DOE to deny board requests for draft documents and access to deliberative meetings, such as those held after emergencies.

Allows the board to exclude many facilities at Hanford and other sites from board oversight because the board does not think they present a significant radiological hazard.

The safety board told the energy secretary that federal law gives the board the authority to determine its access and the extent of its oversight.

Limiting oversight to the safety of the public off Hanford goes against historical precedence and federal law, it said.

It argued that its expert advice is often dependent on draft documents and meetings.

“Congress has asked the board to express its view early in the process of design and construction, for instance, so that the board’s opinion can be considered prior to DOE decision being made,” the board told the energy secretary.

White, the assistant secretary for the DOE Office of Environmental Management, said Wednesday that DOE appreciates the advice the board provides, but ultimately DOE is the owner of Hanford and other sites and is responsible for managing the risk associated with their facilities and operations.

“Our work is critical to lowering the environmental risk posed by the legacy of the Cold War,” she said. Hanford is contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

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The new DOE order does not hinder cooperation with the board, she said.

DOE has continued to work with the board staff as it did before the order was issued, she said. Since May DOE has responded to about 1,000 requests for information from the board and its staff.

DOE reserves the right to control access to information “in the predecisional phase.” On a case-by-case basis, it will consider sharing information when it is mature enough to be helpful, she said.

DOE will welcome board comments on lower hazard radiological facilities, labeled Hazard Category 3, but the main focus should remain on the most serious risks, she said.

Board member Joyce Connery said looking at how DOE and its contractors conduct themselves on low and medium risk illustrates how they will conduct themselves on high risk activities, she said.

DOE continues to say that the order does not change the collaboration between DOE and the safety board, said board member Daniel Santos at the close of the meeting.

“So why issue the order?” Santos asked. “So why change? I just cannot reconcile the language of the order with the theme there is no change. So I am concerned that things will change as people implement the order.”

Hanford Challenge has been among the watchdog groups that have pushed back against the new rule, joining similar groups in New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee and California.

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The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has made numerous recommendations to improve the future safe operations of the Hanford vitrification plant under construction. Courtesy Bechtel National

Too often the public has no way of checking up on DOE, said Ralph Hutchison, of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance in Tennessee, in a statement.

“We rely on the safety board,” he said. “Their reports provide a window into the operations at sites across the country. Too often, they tell us of problems and incidents that pose risks to workers and potentially to the public.”

If DOE finds that inconvenient, it’s a small price to pay for operating as safely as possible, he said.

The Energy Communities Alliance has told the energy secretary that DOE should have consulted with the alliance, local communities, state regulators, the board, the tribes and the public rather than unilaterally implementing the new order.

The flow of information to the safety board that could impact local communities will be slowed by the order, it said. Among its concerns is that the DOE contractors who do most of the work at Hanford are required under the order to refer all requests for information or access to a DOE liaison for a decision on a response.

Many of the requirements of the order appear either comprehensively or arbitrarily to limit safety board access to DOE activities or DOE employees who make key decisions, it said.

The safety board has areas in which it needs improvement, such as incorporating concerns of cost and technical feasibility into its recommendations to DOE, the alliance said.

“Nevertheless, DOE must not impeded (safety board) operations by restricting access to critical information necessary to fulfill the board’s mandate,” it said.

The next safety board hearing on the DOE order is expected to be held in New Mexico.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews