June 24, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: DOE must make safety paramount at Hanford

 

Claims the U.S. Department of Energy and contractors are ignoring safety and technical problems at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are almost as old as the first atom.

But the most recent allegations come from the watchdog charged with overseeing DOE efforts to decommission the nation’s decrepit nuclear defense plants, one whose recommendations the department has never before rejected. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has been following up on questions raised a year ago by a whistle-blower given a basement desk and little to do after warning a $12.2 billion vitrification plant now under construction might be seriously flawed.

So flawed, in fact, that residue left in the reservation’s nuclear waste tanks after pumping could become critical – explosive, that is. So, too, might gases that accumulate during the process.

The vitrification plant is supposed to do just what its name suggests: turn Hanford’s brew of World War II and post-war nuclear waste into glass that can be safely cached for eons. Much of that material has been stored in tanks, some of which have corroded and released their contents.

So great is the toxicity, parts of the plant have been designed with non-moving parts, the better to keep workers out during a projected 40 years of operation.

But the technologies to accomplish the task have never before been deployed on the scale demanded at Hanford, the nation’s worst nuclear mess. Contractors have resisted a full-scale test because of cost and time issues.

Because the allegations are so serious, the Safety Board started an investigation that included public and closed hearings at Hanford. The testimony reinforced its initial concerns and raised others, including the suggestion witnesses might have been intimidated by superiors escorting them to the hearings.

The DOE has denied there was any witness tampering and has told the board to back off on an investigation.

If the board has backpedaled, it does not show in the letter and set of recommendations members sent June 9 to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“Neither DOE nor contractor management has taken effective remedial action to advance the Secretary’s mandate to establish and maintain a strong safety culture,” says the report, which also finds validity to the technical concerns raised by whistle-blower Walter Tamsaitis and other hearing witnesses.

Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman responded the next day with a letter reassuring Hanford workers that the department’s own investigations revealed no improper actions. Chu must respond to the Safety Board’s recommendations more fully by Aug. 8.

Chu has few friends in Washington state, which, along with South Carolina, has sued the secretary for halting work on the proposed Yucca Mountain spent nuclear fuel repository in Nevada. Many in Eastern Washington might find any linkage between Hanford and safety a stretch, at best.

A strong embrace of the Safety Board’s recommendations would be reassuring.

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