The Department of Energy is making substantial progress in improving the safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant project, said Peter Winokur, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
But it remains to be seen if that translates to the DOE contractor on the project, Bechtel National, Winokur said at a public hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., on vitrification plant nuclear safety culture issues.
Among changes is linking a larger percentage of Bechtel's potential quarterly pay on the project to safety culture performance.
The board heard from DOE headquarters officials on the state of reforms at the plant, many of them started after a comprehensive assessment by the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security, or HSS.
The assessment concluded that there is a reluctance by DOE and contractor employees to raise concerns related to future safe operations of the plant and some groups of contractor employees feared retaliation. It also found that managers did not have a full appreciation of the current safety culture at the plant or the effort needed to foster a healthy safety culture there.
A defense board public hearing in March in the Tri-Cities led to the conclusion that there is a strong link between safety culture and the ability of the project to find, accept and resolve technical issues that would affect the plant's ability to treat radioactive waste and ensure protection of the public and workers over its 40 years of operation, Winokur said.
The vitrification plant is being built to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium at Hanford.
The plant has major technical issues that need to be resolved, and work has been slowed on its largest building, the Pretreatment Facility, as issues are worked through, said David Huizenga, DOE senior adviser for environmental management.
The vitrification plant project safety culture issues surfaced as the project faced difficult technical issues, and officials did a poor job explaining how the issues were being worked through, Huizenga said. Many times, people were working on the issues but the people concerned about the issues were not told that, he said.
"We are on the road to recovery because of admitting we have issues," he said.
Among changes made is rebalancing Bechtel's quarterly performance award to tie a larger percentage of it to nuclear safety culture performance.
The DOE HSS review speculated that the amount of performance award available for design engineering quality "may not provide sufficient incentive to produce the desired level of quality."
DOE is working on a new cost and schedule for the vitrification plant, and then changes will need to be made to the Bechtel contract, which could include more focus on nuclear safety, Huizenga said.
However, Glenn Podonsky, DOE chief HSS officer, said that more important than incentives are the core values of project leadership.
HSS did not fully understand the nuclear safety culture issues until it conducted what was its second and more comprehensive assessment. Similarly, project officials did not fully understand the extent of the issue initially, Podonsky said.
Now key leadership, including Huizenga, Scott Samuelson and Frank Russo "get it," he said. Samuelson is the manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, and Russo is the Bechtel project director.
There is no "single point solution" to issues, said Daniel Poneman, deputy energy secretary. DOE remains in the early phases of implementing improvements, and continuous assessments will be needed going forward, he said.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu is expected to visit Hanford this summer to reiterate the importance of a robust and questioning safety culture, he said.
In other developments in recent months, HSS established a nuclear safety site lead program with experienced nuclear safety professional assigned to monitor operations and activities at each DOE nuclear facility.
This spring, Poneman issued a memo to all DOE employees and contractors emphasizing the importance of the Differing Professional Opinions program that gives employees a way to raise professional opinions that differ from prevailing management views or practices.
A differing professional opinion had been filed questioning whether radioactive waste particles would cause erosion and corrosion of metal in the vitrification plant, wearing out the plant before waste is treated. That differing professional opinion can be concluded because the issue now is one that everyone agrees needs to be addressed, Huizenga said.
HSS also is working with the HAMMER training center at Hanford to develop a safety culture training program that can be used throughout DOE.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com