NUCLEAR WASTE

New reports raise more safety concerns at Hanford

Two new reports draw a critical picture of the safety culture at the nation's largest nuclear waste site, where the Department of Energy is overseeing the design of a treatment plant that is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

The Hanford, Wash., waste site is home to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste slated for a first-of-its-kind treatment that would trap the waste in glass. But the $12 billion project is suffering from accusations that supervisors do not properly consider technical and safety concerns.

A new report from DOE's Office of Health Safety and Security finds that "there is a definite unwillingness and uncertainty among employees about the ability to openly challenge management decisions." A draft report from DOE's inspector general indicates that oversight is a problem as well; in the "coordination draft" obtained by Greenwire, IG auditors write that DOE and Bechtel did not ensure that some of the vessels slated to contain radioactive material went through the proper quality assurance.

The findings come more than six months after the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety (DNFS) Board harshly criticized the Hanford site for "subtly, consistently, and effectively" communicating to employees that differing opinions were not welcome.

DOE and Bechtel officials say they are committed to ensuring safety at the site and have already implemented a safety culture oversight process and revised the project execution plan to ensure clear federal responsibilities, among other things.

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But critics of the site have pounced on the reports as proof that the site has major issues. Walter Tamosaitis, who works for Bechtel subcontractor URS, has railed against the safety culture of the site since he was transferred from his managing position at Hanford last year. He claims that he was removed when he raised concerns over whether the radioactive waste would be fully mixed in the tanks.

"To me the punch line is DOE and Bechtel are operating a shell game and not really giving the true story of what it's going to take and what it's going to cost," said Tamosaitis, who has filed a lawsuit over his transfer. "In the real world, they should call for a stand down on construction" to assess and fix the problems.

Perception of denial

The HSS report takes a different perspective than the DNFS Board, attributing the atmosphere to a "perception" that management does not encourage concerns.

"BNI needs to be more forthcoming in its transparency with its employees and the public for trust to improve," officials wrote in the report. "While BNI acknowledges that it is dealing with significant issues, various employees and stakeholders indicated that these issues are communicated in a way that diminishes their importance, contributing to a lack of trust and the perception of denial by those involved with the organization."

That is a harsher assessment than the same office made less than two years ago, when it reported that contractor Bechtel had established a "framework for a strong nuclear safety culture."

Dave Huizenga, DOE's acting Assistant Secretary for the Environmental Management program, said the new report helps "inform our understanding of the safety culture at the site and to identify areas for continued improvement."

"Ensuring that employees are comfortable freely raising safety and technical concerns -- and that they feel confident that their concerns will be effectively addressed -- will continue to be a major focus of the Department's efforts as we move forward," he said in a statement. "In the coming weeks, the Office of River Protection and the Environmental Management program will be closely reviewing the HSS assessment, along with other reports and data, to develop an aggressive action plan that builds on steps already underway to improve the safety culture at the site."

Black cells

The IG draft report stays away from employee perceptions and instead focuses on waste processing vessels that will be located in sealed compartments called "black cells" or hard-to-reach locations. Once the plant is up and running, the vessels will contain radioactive waste that is being treated -- and those in the black cells will be impossible to reach for maintenance during the 40-year operation of the plant.

But IG officials found that some of the vessels were missing required documentation ensuring that they had undergone certain quality assurance tests. Two were missing records that provided evidence the welds met specifications; Betchel also allowed unqualified employees to oversee the welding examinations.

"Without improvements to the quality assurance process and acquiring the necessary quality assurance records, the Department may not be able to demonstrate that the WTP facilities are safe and will that they operate as intended," IG auditors wrote. "The lack of quality assurance records could hinder the Department's corrective response in the event of an emergency, potentially exposing workers and the environment to dangerous radiation."

DOE and Bechtel spokesmen emphasized that the leaked "coordination draft" was not finalized. Indeed, management has not had a chance to comment or fact-check the report, and such input often changes some aspects of IG reports. IG spokeswoman Felicia Jones said the report was "leaked inappropriately."

"It does not serve the process well, and we have no further comment," Jones said.

DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said the agency is currently reviewing the draft for factual accuracy and "will have an opportunity to address any potential concerns with the report and include a response that lays out the steps we will take to address the recommendations."

Bechtel spokesman Jason Bohne said his company was also looking over the draft and expected to complete that fact-checking later today.

"We continue to work every day to ensure that the waste treatment plant will be as safe and effective as possible as it completes its critical mission," he said.

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