RICHLAND – Work to clean out nuclear waste from underground tanks and to build a plant to treat the waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was stopped 31 times over nine years to address safety or construction quality issues, according to a new report.
The Government Accountability Office report released Monday says more needs to be done to track the costs of the work stoppages.
“Depending on what causes a work stoppage and how long it lasts, some stoppages could increase already substantial cleanup costs,” the report said.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to top $50 billion.
The report advised the Department of Energy, which manages Hanford cleanup, to establish criteria for when contractors should track the causes and costs of work stoppages. However, the report says those criteria should recognize the importance of worker and nuclear safety.
“Stopping work can be an important first step to dealing with hazardous situations that arise in the course of a cleanup,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., one of the representatives who requested the study.
Work stoppages can protect the safety of workers dealing with toxic waste, prevent further environmental contamination and save taxpayer money, he said.
However, he said, the Energy Department has failed to collect sufficient information to explain work stoppages.
“That information would have been instructive in further protecting worker safety and avoid similar stoppages in the future,” Inslee said.
The Energy Department has agreed to follow the report’s recommendation to have its contractors at weapons cleanup sites, including Hanford, better track information related to stoppages.
But agency officials also are concerned that systematically monitoring all work stoppages could send the message to workers that such stoppages are to be avoided, possibly discouraging them from calling a halt to work.
Hanford policy allows any employee to call a stoppage to address a safety concern or construction quality issue, in part to give everyone responsibility for safety. Work stoppages also may be called by contractors or DOE.
The 31 work stoppages from January 2000 through December 2008 ranged from an hour to more than two years.
The Energy Department said the stoppages were for portions of projects and in most cases workers were reassigned to other areas where work was continuing.