Managers of a $12.2 billion project to stabilize radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation actively prevent workers from raising serious safety concerns — and threaten punishment when they do, a scathing government investigation has found.
Managers of a $12.2 billion project to stabilize radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation actively prevent workers from raising serious safety concerns — and sometimes punish those who do, a scathing government investigation has found.
Government managers and contractors overseeing construction of a treatment plant that would turn millions of gallons of nuclear waste into glass have attempted to suppress technical issues that threaten the project’s cost or timeline — even when those issues posed risks to workers or the public, according to the report.
In the past year, workers and several technical papers have suggested that, as designed, parts of the plant could risk explosion or an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Others suggested that pipes in parts of the plant could grow so thick with nuclear waste that, if clogged, no human or machine could get in and make repairs.
The new investigation was conducted by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a federal agency of nuclear experts tasked with making sure the country’s radioactive-waste sites remain safe. The board ruled that Hanford’s safety culture is so poor that it has “a substantial probability of jeopardizing” construction and safe operation of the one-of-a-kind plant.
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That culture “is in need of prompt, major improvement,” the agency concluded, and “corrective actions will only be successful and enduring if championed by the Secretary of Energy,” Steven Chu.
A Department of Energy (DOE) spokeswoman on Monday said the government takes safety seriously and was committed to fostering an open and questioning environment among workers and contractors.
“Assuring a robust and effective safety culture at Hanford and all of our sites is an integral part of achieving our mission,” DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said in an emailed statement. “We will be reviewing the recommendations from the Defense Board closely in the coming weeks to identify if any additional steps are necessary to further strengthen our approach to nuclear safety.”
Stutsman declined to answer specific questions about the report. Members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board couldn’t be reached for comment.
Lead treatment-plant contractor Bechtel National said in a statement that it continually works to improve nuclear safety and it would work with the Energy Department to study the report and identify areas in need of improvement.
The waste-treatment plant under construction at Hanford is the centerpiece of a multiyear cleanup of deadly byproducts from building the nation’s first atomic weapons. The plant is supposed to turn the nuclear witches’ brew in 177 underground tanks into glass, so it could be stored permanently in a repository.
One-third of those tanks are believed to have leaked, spilling at least 1 million gallons of waste into the earth.
The project is extraordinarily complex and has been rife with delays. Its price tag has nearly tripled.
The new report came in response to last summer’s demotion of Walt Tamosaitis, a high-level engineer who worked for treatment-plant contractor URS Inc. He was removed from the project and put in a basement office one day after raising concerns about whether a system designed to keep waste stirred up would work safely. He says he was given a “do-nothing” job and that he was being punished because managers wanted to keep the plant on schedule.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board did not set out to evaluate Tamosaitis’ claim of retaliation. But the board agreed that his treatment — citing his isolation and lack of meaningful work — served as a constant reminder that “individuals who question current practices or provide alternative points of view are not considered team players and will be dealt with harshly.”
Tamosaitis, still battling in court with the federal government over his removal from the project, said he was grateful safety issues were being taken seriously.
“I think this investigation really exposes the concerns that I’ve tried to articulate,” Tamosaitis said Monday. “I have a lot of concerns about the plant, and I’m gratified to see that they identified the same concerns. I’m glad to see that someone in the government has taken an interest in this.”
The board took sworn testimony from witnesses and reviewed 30,000 pages of documents. One high-ranking safety expert who wasn’t identified in the report testified that he or she was next in line to be removed because the expert refused to stop critiquing technically unsafe designs. That fear was validated by a senior DOE official speaking under oath.
One worker who questioned calculations that predicted how far radiation could spread in an accident was verbally admonished by a high-level DOE employee. The government later acknowledged the original calculations were flawed.
Another report, in April 2010, suggested that, as designed, plutonium waste could build up in the treatment plant and cause an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Treatment-plant managers ignored the report for 10 months — all the while dismissing concerns about the possibility of chain reactions, according to the board’s investigation. When the report was reviewed, plant managers agreed they couldn’t rule out the possibility of a nuclear reaction.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has noted previously that some safety concerns didn’t appear to be taken seriously by DOE officials and Bechtel National.
But the investigation released Monday is by far the harshest critique yet of the safety culture of one of the most expensive and dangerous projects in the world.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093