Nuclear Safety Violations Will Cost Hanford Contractor $300,000

The Department of Energy has issued more than $300,000 in fines to CH2M Hill Hanford Group Inc., a contractor involved in a multibillion-dollar cleanup effort at the former site of the Manhattan Project in Washington state.

The department on March 10 announced it plans to fine the Englewood, Colo.-based company $316,250 for violations of the department's nuclear safety requirements, which resulted in several workers being exposed to radiation at the Hanford Tank Farms near Richland, Wash.

The tank farms are part of a 586-square-mile plutonium production complex in southeastern Washington known as the Hanford Site, which played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb and other nuclear weapons. CH2M Hill is the Department of Energy's prime contractor in charge of safely storing the more than 50 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste in 177 underground storage tanks within the site. The tanks are arranged into 18 farms, known as "tank farms."

Energy Department: CH2M Hill Needs to Be Proactive

When issuing a Preliminary Notice of Violation to CH2M Hill, the Department of Energy cited four alleged events that took place in 2003 and 2004. The events include the contamination of several CH2M workers while removing equipment from a valve pit (June 2003) and the exposure of a worker to radiation while removing equipment from a tank (July 2004), according to the agency. As a result of the July 2004 event, the worker received an exposure of 22 rem to his hand, as compared to an annual Department of Energy limit of 50 rem, the agency says.

Although no regulatory limit was exceeded, according to the department, the exposures could have been much higher because effective controls were not in place. The agency says the amount of the proposed civil penalty was based on the significance of the violations.

"We want our contractors to identify and address safety issues before they cause a serious problem," said John Shaw, assistant secretary for environment, safety and health at the Energy Department. "These issues have been identified before and attempts at correction have not been effective. It is important that senior management get involved to be sure that these problems are corrected now."

In its letter to the company, the Department of Energy noted a "…lack of sustained improvement" in CH2M Hill nuclear operations, demonstrating the need for "…further improvement in nuclear safety culture."

CH2M Hill, according to the agency, has been under contract since 1999 to manage Hanford's tank waste and was awarded a 5-year extension in January 2001.

CH2M Hill Pledges 'Constant Vigilance' and Improvement

CH2M Hill, in a statement, called the events cited by the Department of Energy "a reminder that constant vigilance and continuous improvement are required for us to be protective of workers and the environment as well as respectful of our cleanup responsibilities for the nation's taxpayers."

"The events cited in the penalty are unacceptable in the complex work environment we face each and every day at Hanford's tank farms," the company said.

CH2M Hill says the violations have prompted the company to take several corrective actions, including improved work processes and additional training and testing for key personnel.

2003 Report Blasted Energy Department, CH2M Hill

Both CH2M Hill and the Department of Energy have come under fire before for allegedly failing to protect worker health and safety at the Hanford Tank Farms.

A report issued in 2003 by the Government Accountability Project, titled "Knowing Endangerment: Worker Exposure to Toxic Vapors at the Hanford Tank Farms," documented dozens of instances in which CH2M Hill workers were exposed to toxic chemical vapors, which caused workers to complain of nosebleeds, persistent headaches, tearing eyes, burning skin and lungs, shortness of breath, dizziness and other symptoms. The report attributed the exposures, in part, to CH2M Hill's failure to provide adequate respiratory protection. For more on the report, read "Hanford: Is Fast Cleanup Endangering Workers?"

CH2M Hill responded in 2004 with pledges to examine and upgrade its safety practices. For more, read "New Safety Precautions Launched at Hanford Facility" and "CH2M Hill Hanford Expands Worker Health and Safety Efforts."

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