Hanford safety reports offer contradictory views
YAKIMA — Workers who are designing and building a waste treatment plant at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site generally are not reluctant to raise safety concerns, even though there have been isolated cases where workers have said otherwise, a new report concluded Thursday.
The report differed starkly from earlier findings of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which raised concerns about the safety culture at the Hanford nuclear reservation plant, and critics immediately disparaged the latest findings as being “bought and paid for” by the site contractor.
The $12.3 billion plant in southeast Washington is being built to convert highly radioactive waste into a stable, glass form for permanent disposal underground. The one-of-a-kind project has long endured technical problems, resulting in delays and cost overruns, though it is widely considered the cornerstone of cleanup at the highly contaminated site.
Some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal are stored in 177 aging, underground tanks at Hanford. Many of those tanks have leaked, threatening the groundwater and the neighboring Columbia River, the largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest.
Two Hanford workers have filed suit as whistleblowers — the latest one filed last month — claiming they were targeted for reprisals after raising safety concerns or offering differing technical opinions about the plant.
The new report by a seven-member team of nuclear consultants found no evidence that the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees Hanford cleanup, and builder Bechtel National Inc. suppressed technical dissent by employees.
The team also found no general reluctance to raising safety or technical issues that could impact the overall safety of the project, “even though there were isolated expressions to the contrary,” said Nils Diaz, vice chairman of the Independent Safety and Quality Culture Assessment team.
Rather, the team concluded there is a lack of effective and timely resolution of technical issues on the project, which contributes to “real and perceived problems” about the project’s safety culture, he said, and communication needs to improve.
“They need better communications with a common principle, and that common principle is safety,” he said.
Tom Carpenter of the worker advocacy group Hanford Challenge immediately criticized the report, calling it a “soft-pedaling” of the safety concerns.
“Bechtel bought and paid for its own analysis,” he said. “This just sets up a big dispute, probably before Congress, about who’s right, which is a shame, because I think we need to acknowledge that there is a safety culture problem and move forward to heal it, rather than continue to deny it.”
The Energy Department remains committed to continuously improving the safety culture at the plant, including ensuring that technical and safety issues are addressed in a timely and effective manner, agency spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler said in a statement.
She said the department will review the team’s recommendations, and once its own assessment is completed, will develop a plan to address any weaknesses and deficiencies in safety culture.
Bechtel project director Frank Russo issued a lengthy statement to his employees about the report, encouraging them to read it and become familiar with it. He stressed the consultants’ points that the review was conducted independent of Bechtel but with the company’s full cooperation.
The report offered many criticisms and opportunities for improvement, he said, while recognizing efforts in the past few years to improve safety.
“As a management team, we accept the findings of the ISQCA team, and we will immediately initiate actions to implement the team’s recommendations,” Russo said.
Regardless of who paid for the report, the team was put together with the assurance that it would be completely independent, Diaz said.
Roger Mattson, another team member, noted that the review also agreed with the nuclear safety board about problems between project workers who handle engineering and those in charge of nuclear safety.
“There is an issue there,” he said. “We came to different conclusions as to why.”
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 last decades.
The biggest component of that cleanup is the vitrification plant, whose cost has grown from $4.3 billion to $12.3 billion. Delays have pushed its testing start date to 2019, and the Energy Department recently announced the possibility of additional delays and projected higher costs.
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