Good luck to Ward Sproat, the Bechtel executive assigned to improve nuclear safety and quality culture at the Hanford vitrification plant.
He might just have the toughest job in the Mid-Columbia these days.
Under the best of circumstances, changing the culture of any organization is a tall order. In the case of something as big and complex as the $12.2 billion vit plant construction project, the task seems monumental.
Fortunately, some factors are working in Sproat's favor. The construction side already appears to have a strong safety culture, so it shouldn't be tough to check that off his list.
He also has experience in the hot seat, which should serve him well in the new assignment.
Before joining Bechtel, Sproat was the Department of Energy's director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, where he was in charge of efforts to produce the licensing application for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
The technical aspects of the job were complicated enough, but the political atmosphere surrounding the work must have been poisonous.
Sproat is on loan to Bechtel National from Bechtel Power Corp., where he is a principal vice president. We're not certain if that gives him a high enough profile to push through systematic changes at Hanford, but we hope so.
"Ward is ideally suited for this role," Frank Russo, Bechtel project director for the vit plant, told employees last week.
It's critical to the Mid-Columbia's future that Russo is right. Hanford's most dangerous nuclear wastes will be treated at the vit plant, and it's crucial to the entire Northwest that it's done right.
Everyone involved in the project in any capacity needs to be on board.
Last year, we were disappointed with DOE's initial response to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board's criticism of the project's safety culture.
The board concluded that behavior by DOE and contractor management reinforces a subculture that deters workers from reporting and managers from resolving technical safety concerns.
In our view, DOE and its contractor sounded defensive when addressing DNFSB's concerns.
We've since seen improvement, but nothing to the extent required to reassure the public about the plant's safety.
Just last month, DOE's Office of Health, Safety and Security released a report that found animosity between workers designing the plant and those verifying the environmental and nuclear safety of the plant.
Some tension between production workers and those in charge of quality control is inevitable in any operation. But more troubling, the report found that vit plant workers were reluctant to raise safety or quality concerns.
It's not enough for Bechtel and DOE to welcome questions and concerns. Workers have to believe such input is valued and rewarded.
With Sproat's help, Bechtel intends to develop a comprehensive plan that addresses all of the recommendations produced by various oversight groups in recent months, Russo told workers last week.
It's the right message and an essential step toward completing needed improvements and restoring the public's confidence in the vit plant's safe operations.