More than six years ago, a Department of Energy official wrote to Bechtel National, the company in charge of the design and construction of the most expensive environmental remediation project in the world.
The letter summarized a survey of workers and their belief that those who raised safety concerns would be "targeted for future lay-off lists." Safety is of paramount concern at the Hanford Site; the Washington state nuclear production complex is home to more than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste that is slated to undergo a first-of-its-kind treatment.
"Discussions between [the Office of River Management] and BNI management on these issues have demonstrated BNI's willingness to work to address these employee concerns," ORM manager Roy Schepens wrote in the 2005 letter. "In addition, the ORM recognizes the efforts BNI has made and continues to make to address the perception of a chilling effect in the workplace."
It wasn't the first time such accusations surfaced and it wouldn't be the last. But this year, DOE is facing perhaps its most public criticism yet, with a new report that reveals a broken safety culture and a former manager who says he was fired for voicing concerns about serious risks in the project.
The report -- from the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) -- details known concerns with the project, which aims to trap the waste in glass so it can be safely buried. The process includes mixing the waste in large tanks using "pulse jet mixers" that have never been used at another nuclear facility.
Many problems have cropped up over the years, pushing back the construction deadline and causing billions of dollars in budget overruns. Ten years ago, officials estimated the project would cost little more than $4 billion; today, that number stands at more than $12 billion.
The pressures of deadline and cost appear to have created what the board calls a "chilled atmosphere." Management discouraged technical dissent affecting safety, it wrote, and "subtly, consistently, and effectively communicated to employees that differing professional opinions counter to decisions reached by management were not welcome and would not be dealt with on their merits."
DOE is promising to study the safety issues and have launched a public campaign of "town halls" to talk to workers. But the department is also demanding all the board's investigative records, pointing to a former in-house study DOE officials say found different results. So far, the board has refused, citing confidentiality concerns for the 45 employees interviewed.
Longtime Hanford critics say it is an all-too-familiar dance.
"Naturally they're responding by saying, 'We'll fix this.' At the same time, out of the other side of their mouth, they're saying they don't really see a problem," said Tom Carpenter, the executive director of Hanford Challenge, a group whose mission is to "hold Hanford accountable." "How heartfelt is it really that they're going to undertake some reforms?"
A matter of perspective
In a recent interview, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman characterized the agency's request as an honest attempt to get to the root of the problem.
"Obviously the things that the board had found were quite different in many respects from the things we had found and since we all work for United States of America ... it seemed like the normal and natural thing to make sure we had the underlying facts right," he said.
Poneman pointed to a report from DOE's Office of Health, Safety and Security, which conducted an investigation in August and September of 2010. The report's executive summary applauds BNI's establishment of a "framework for a strong nuclear safety culture" and attributes the perception of a broken safety culture to small "pockets" of employees.
"Although a small number of individuals expressed such opinions, any indicators that individuals are concerned about the safety culture in general, and retaliation in particular, warrant management attention, including efforts to determine the extent of the concerns," HSS officials wrote. "The HSS team's analysis indicated that underlying weaknesses in communications and change [in] management have contributed to the perception of a chilled atmosphere among some employees."
DNFSB describes the problem as far more serious, drawing from a yearlong investigation that included 45 interviews and 30,000 pages of documents. The board also questions the HSS findings, pointing out that employees were escorted to their interviews by management.
"The Board's record shows that involving management with the interviews clearly can inhibit the willingness of employees to express concerns," DNFSB Chairman Peter Winokur wrote in the report. "In its own way, DOE's decision to allow management to be involved in the HSS investigation raises concerns about safety culture."
In a recent interview, Winokur said the board would reaffirm its conclusions if Energy Secretary Steven Chu did not eventually accept all of their findings. But he said the process appeared to be moving forward. Poneman was also optimistic.
"I know that there's been a lot of back and forth on it, but at end of day I think we're moving in right direction," Poneman said.
Relegated to a 'mole hole'
DNFSB launched its investigation into the site's safety culture last year, after Walter Tamosaitis wrote the board a letter alleging that he was fired after raising safety concerns. Tamosaitis, a 63-year-old former engineering manager at the plant, had been head of a research group that had a budget of about $500 million.
He was suddenly laid off in July 2010, after repeatedly raising concerns over whether the radioactive waste was being fully mixed in the tanks. The pulse jet mixers appeared insufficient to dredge up the bottom of the tanks, where plutonium could settle and cause bubbles of explosive hydrogen gas.
His firing came after the June 30 deadline to close such technical issues; managers celebrated the milestone, while Tamosaitis continued to insist that the "M3 issue" was not resolved.
"Walt is killing us," Betchel manager Frank Russo wrote in an email on July 1, to one of Tamosaitis' bosses. "Get him in your corporate office today."
The next day, Tamosaitis was fired. He now works in what he calls the "mole hole," a basement office of URS Corp., a subcontractor to Bechtel. He has little to do, after 40 years of managing chemical plants and working on nuclear cleanup projects.
In a recent interview, Tamosaitis recalled an oft-told joke at the Hanford site: Workers ask new employees whether they have their "bus ticket," he said, to flee when the problem-plagued plant goes into operation.
Managers are so focused on getting technical issues closed that they constantly "solve" safety concerns by promising later reports and studies, Tamosaitis said.
The HSS report describes the process this way: "Although the broad M3 issue is categorized as closed, a number of related or subordinate issues have been generated to track additional actions that need to be performed to provide additional assurance or confirmation that the uncertainties in the mixing issue are sufficiently understood."
In other words, BNI will have to do more testing to ensure the design works.
"They keep throwing it forward and eventually it's going to bite you and you have to do something," Tamosaitis said. "Or you end up with a plant that doesn't run well."
Tamosaitis and Carpenter questioned whether DOE could effectively oversee Bechtel. After more than 20 years of failed attempts, both entities share a common goal: Get the plant built and in operation.
"I think DOE is not investigating it, doing an investigation into the details of what happened to me or other occurrences like me typifies one of the problems in DOE," Tamosaitis said. "In my opinion, they do not have ability and manpower to oversee the contractors. They are so closely linked with the contractor and tied to the cost and getting it done, they become the contractor in essence."
But Poneman said DOE is continuously looking to improve. The department did not investigate Tamosaitis's claims, he said, because the Department of Labor had already begun its own investigation. He also pointed to a third-party survey that will be done at the Hanford Site and the fact that DOE will conduct an analysis of the concerns Tamosaitis brought up.
"There is no room for complacently and we don't shirk from self-analysis," he said. "In the end, this will all turn out to be a healthy thing. We certainly want to make sure no one suffers retaliation."
Still, he emphasized that employees should follow the official process for lodging concerns.
"You can't run a project and have 11,000 independent questions taking the decisions in different directions," he said. "You have to have a thoughtful and orderly process."
A process does exist, though questions remain about whether it is effective. Tamosaitis, for one, maintains that a manager raising concerns with his colleagues should put remediation into action.
"As a upper manager, by vocalizing it in a meeting and talking, that should create enough focus and concern to talk about it and address it," he said. "Did I vocalize? Yeah, I got fired. The proof is in the pudding."
Soon, DOE might be left to be its own watchdog. DNFSB suffered a 20 percent budget reduction in fiscal 2011, and if the money is not restored in 2012, the board will be forced to lay off a quarter of its staff, Winokur said.
"We've used some carryover funds to keep our head above water," he said in a recent interview. But if Congress does not pass a spending bill before the start of the next fiscal year, he will be forced "start to dismantle the board."
That worries Tamosaitis, who sees the board as the only entity keeping DOE and Bechtel in check.
"If it wasn't for the defense board watching over DOE, there wouldn't be a damn soul watching over them," he said.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.