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Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant Project Has 'Flawed' Safety Culture

Anna King


RICHLAND, Wash. — A high-level whistleblower from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is meeting with members of Congress this week. The topic: the safety culture at Hanford's $12 billion waste treatment plant. A new report backs up his claim that the Department of Energy and its contractors discourage workers from raising safety concerns.


Over the past year Walt Tamosaitis has been spending a lot of time in the basement.

That's where he was transferred after he raised serious concerns about the design and safety of Hanford's plan to treat 53 million gallons of radioactive sludge.

A year later a new report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board describes the safety culture on the waste treatment plant project as "flawed."

So this week, Tamosaitis isn't in the basement, rather he's meeting with members of Congress in Washington, D.C., with what he calls a "sparkle in his eye."

"I think this letter sends a clear message to the contractors and the Department of Energy to say 'Hey, there is something wrong there and you need to look into it.'," Tamosaitis said.

"The letter by itself I don't believe changes anything for me, but it's more just affirmation of what I said a year ago."

The board's conclusion states clearly that the Energy Department and its contractors discouraged, opposed or rejected without review safety questions by staff on the project.

For example, another safety expert on the project refused to yield on "unsound" design points. After that he described himself as "next in line" to be axed.

Now some Hanford watchdogs wonder if the plant can be built at all. Tom Carpenter leads Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based group.

"We all want to see the waste treatment plant succeed," Carpenter said. "But we don't think it will as long as there's a broken safety culture and unaddressed safety problems. So, I think understandably there are a lot of political pressures and financial pressures on the project to show results to Congress."

"But that should not be getting in the way of making sure we have a safe and effective facility that is making sure that we clean up Hanford."

Department of Energy didn't respond to several requests for an on-tape interview. But the agency spokeswoman did send over a brief written statement that says:

"... Assuring a robust and effective safety culture at Hanford and all of our sites is an integral part of achieving our mission. We will be reviewing the recommendations from the Defense Board closely in the coming weeks..."

Bechtel, the main federal contractor on the project, said in a written statement that their employees have said in independent surveys that they do feel comfortable raising safety issues.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recommended in its highest level of urgency that Energy Secretary Steven Chu take direct action and control of the treatment plant project.

The plant is supposed to be completed by 2019 and come in on a budget of $12 billion. The mammoth plant is the only current government plan to treat 53 million gallons of radioactive sludge at Hanford.

On the Web:

Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Hanford documents:

Hanford Waste Treatment & Immobilization Plant Project:

Waste treatment fact sheets:


Full statement by the Department of Energy:

"At every level of the Department of Energy, we take our obligation to protect the safety of our workers and the public very seriously. We are committed to fostering a questioning, safety-driven attitude among all of our federal and contractor employees.

That is why the Department has in place a number of distinct safety programs that include independent nuclear safety reviews and an integrated safety management program headed by the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security.

The DNFSB plays an important role in our safety efforts. Assuring a robust and effective safety culture at Hanford and all of our sites is an integral part of achieving our mission.

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,"

-- said Jen Stutsman, a DOE spokeswoman.

Full statement by Bechtel:

"WTP management and employees are fully committed to a strong nuclear safety and quality culture, and we welcome every opportunity to improve it. We will work with the DOE to carefully study the DNFSB report and any supporting information provided to identify further opportunities for enhancement.

We continually work to make improvements to our nuclear safety culture, including over the past year, enhancing management communication of commitments and expectations for nuclear safety, and training of more than 1,500 employees and their managers.

Numerous evaluations have been performed to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the WTP culture. Results of the evaluations conducted by independent internal and external assessments and surveys of nearly 1,000 employees have consistently found that the vast majority of WTP employees feel comfortable that they can and do raise issues, and are aware of and frequently use the many avenues made available to raise issues of any type.

Continuous improvement in our Nuclear Safety and Quality culture is fundamental to a strong WTP, and our efforts will continue.

We welcome the opportunity to review any information that will help us make further enhancements to our programs and our culture."

-- Provided by Suzanne Heaston, Bechtel's spokeswoman in Richland.

Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio