Bechtel National appears to have turned the corner on the path to improving the nuclear safety culture at Hanford's vitrification plant, said David Huizenga, the Department of Energy senior adviser for environmental management.
He and Energy Secretary Steven Chu were scheduled to be at Hanford on Thursday and today, as Chu meets with large and small groups of workers to discuss the importance of a strong safety culture. He also plans a brief press conference today.
The visit fulfills a commitment Chu made to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, after it found the nuclear safety culture lacking at the vitrification plant. Concerns stemmed from questions about whether employees felt free to raise technical issues that could affect the future safe operation of the vit plant without suffering retaliation and whether concerns that were raised were promptly addressed.
The $12.2 billion plant is being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from past weapons plutonium production into a stable glass form for disposal.
Huizenga said he agrees with the defense board that improving the safety culture at the project will take time.
But "the action plan (Bechtel) put together has a number of important steps to follow," Huizenga said. "I see that they embrace that and are started on the path."
At a May 22 hearing of the defense board, board Chairman Peter Winokur said he saw substantial progress by DOE in improving the safety culture on the project but withheld judgment until he could see how that translated to the DOE contractor on the project, Bechtel National. It had just released its improvement plan then.
"The culture on the project and the focus on nuclear safety and quality can certainly be improved from where it is today," said Ward Sproat, principal vice president at Bechtel Power Corp., who is temporarily assigned to Bechtel National to take charge of nuclear safety and quality culture improvement efforts.
But there has been good recognition by senior leadership that the project should be better going forward, he said.
The improvement plan calls for shifting from consensus decision making to a more timely process. If everyone could not reach consensus, they would try again and decisions could be slow to be made, Sproat said.
"That's not an acceptable decision-making process," he said. "We want all the right people in the room before the decision is made, but to be clear who makes the decision."
Being clear on who is responsible for making a decision also will improve accountability for a decision's implications, the plan said.
"A strong nuclear safety culture requires that individuals hold each other and themselves accountable for their actions and decisions," the plan said.
The plan also focuses on the behaviors of managers and supervisors.
The vitrification plant project is so large that there are more than 100 people in first-line supervisory positions, and with that many people, there will be a whole range of behaviors when workers bring up issues, Sproat said.
"The behaviors of the workforce are most directly influenced by the behaviors of their managers and supervisors," the plan said.
Bechtel will make clear the behaviors it expects them to exhibit, Sproat said, such as showing trust in the workforce.
The project now does not spend much time on feedback, but feedback and positive reinforcement of behavior can lead to improvement, he said.
The plan also calls for simplifying and reducing the number of resolution processes for workers raising issues, clearly communicating to the workforce the correct process to use for specific types of issues, providing feedback on the status of issues and letting people know what their options are if they are not satisfied by the resolution of the issue.
Going back to 2005, Bechtel devoted significant resources to improving the nuclear safety and quality culture on the project, including training and reinforcement, the plan said.
But as management changed and workers left and were replaced, the benefits were diluted because the training and reinforcement were not institutionalized, the plan said.
"The reality is it is a big organization, constantly changing, and the culture is going to continually change," Sproat said. But the plan is intended to change it in the right direction, he said.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org