25 August 2011

Good Ol’ Boys Club ... USDOE/Bechtel Name Team to Review Safety Culture at Hanford

The Department on Energy (DOE) has begun a review of the safety culture at Hanford vitrification plant. Bechtel, the contractor for the vitrification plant, made recommendations for the seven member team to the DOE; which the DOE approved. The assembled team is made up of insiders from the DOE, NRC, and have connections to commercial nuclear sites. Interestingly enough, there were no women selected to the panel.  The “independent review” is tasked with examining the safety culture of the Hanford vitrification plant. However, it is hard to claim that an independent review can take place when the company under review handpicked the review team. In a statement Bechtel proclaims; “We welcome the opportunity for a full and open review of the project by these experts, and we will accept and implement any actions they identify. [1]” I would also be welcoming to the members of a panel of my own creation.
We applaud the creation of a panel to review the safety culture – if it operates in the open with public input and transparency, and if it were truly independent. 
However what has been announced leaves much room for doubt and concern.
If the panel operates openly, and allows for truly anonymous safety concerns to be presented by workers and engineers without fear of retaliation, the panel may be an opportunity for dialogue about safety to come to light. It  may even be seen as an admittance of fault by Bechtel.
The idea that an independent review is possible with a panel that resembles the good ol’ boys is far-fetched. The ability of the panel to conduct a truly independent review was taken away when the DOE failed to contact concerned public interest groups to receive input on who should be on the panel, or how it should be organized. The panel is a fairly homogeneous group which does not allow for a diversified set of critiques and opinions on the safety culture at Hanford.  Yet again, the concerns of the public and possibly those who work at Hanford have been muted by the insiders who care more about costs than safety.
Examining the biographies of the seven hand picked people, five of the seven have business relationships with USDOE, including consulting and contracts dependent upon USDOE. One of the other two defended nuclear power utilities in legal proceedings brought in response to whistleblower and safety concerns.
Heart of America Northwest is concerned that USDOE and Bechtel seek to avoid the open government legal requirements by having the private contractor who is building the plant, Bechtel, pick the panel and receive its recommendations – despite the fact that USDOE is paying the bill for the panel and holds ultimate responsibility for design safety. If the panel reported to USDOE, it would be subject to open government laws, including open public meetings and public comment.
The safety culture of Hanford has repeatedly shown need for improvement. Heart of America Northwest successfully led efforts to have Congress reject DOE and Bechtel's request to spend an additional quarter billion dollars in each of the coming years to accelerate construction of the vitrification plant BEFORE doing the testing of whether the chemical processes will work and whether they pose risks of explosions and nuclear criticalities (self sustaining nuclear reactions). DOE admits that the testing beyond the lab is necessary to ensure that the process and design will work and be safe. Yet, it wanted to make the same mistake it has repeatedly made - spending hundreds of millions pressing ahead on construction before design was done or tested to see if it would be workable or safe. While asking to spend a quarter billion more on construction of the vitrification plant in each of the coming years, without knowing if the work would all have to be redone due to safety, USDOE has been refusing to dig up Plutonium in the soil threatening health and water citing cost.

“Wasted Workers?”

Hanford was recently in the news for slightly different reasons than one would think... A small bag of pot was found in an office on site after the end of a work safety planning meeting.  “The bag was found Aug. 8 in a conference room used by Washington Closure subcontractor S.M. Stoller at the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility.” Immediate drug tests were ordered. Six employees quit rather than submit to drug testing. This incident speaks towards the larger picture of safety culture at Hanford.

[1] Hanford Waste Treatment Plant welcomes review by leading nuclear safety experts-August 22, 2011, Bechtel National, Inc.

Independent review of vitrtification plant safety culture under way,  By Annette Cary-Tri-City Herald August-23, 2011