Safety Board Says Hanford Site Has ‘Atmosphere Adverse’ to Safety

July 7, 2011
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), following an investigation triggered by whistleblower Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, has released a report, Safety Culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, analyzing the failures in the safety culture at the Department of Energy’s waste treatment plant (WTP) at the Hanford site in southeast Washington state. (See the report here

When Tamosaitis, a top engineer with URS at Hanford, called into question whether Bechtel met a contract milestone that resulted in a multi-million dollar bonus, he was reassigned to a basement cubicle “performing no meaningful work,” says his attorney, Jack Sheridan. Tamosaitis’ employer, URS, is a subcontractor for Bechtel.

On July 16, 2010, Tamosaitis wrote a letter to DNFSB Chariman Dr. Peter S. Winokur, saying, “I believe I have been subjected to workplace retaliation because of my efforts to ensure that issues potentially affecting public and worker safety are properly addressed.” (See a copy of Tamosaitis’ letter here.)

Noting his 40 years of company service and 10 years of service at the WTP, as well as the many bonuses and commendations he received, Tamosaitis said he was “constructively fired” on July 2, 2010. Up to the time of his dismissal from the project, he was a deputy chief process engineer and the research and technology manager, with a budget of $500 million over a 7-year period.

“Due to URS corporate management’s support I have been placed in another assignment,” Tamosaitis wrote, “but now, instead of continuing to seek to advance the WTP Project in a safe and technically sound manner as had been my hope, I have been moved to a non-supervisory position outside the project and also offered an unwelcome position overseas separated from my family.”

In his letter to Winokur, Tamosaitis claimed, “This culture of seeking to suppress safety and technical concerns within the project is not new. For example, it is known that the Bechtel and URS WTP project managers have both made statements that they will ‘kill the career’ [of a consultant] for indicating that additional vessel testing may be needed. It starts in 2003 with the first efforts to systematically identify technical issues that required resolution. Although routinely downplayed by senior Bechtel project management during reviews, these issues have not been trivial, and included prevention of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction (criticality) in the mixer tanks as well as ensuring process throughput capability so that the cleanup mission is completed within the design life of the plant (40 years).”

Nearly a year after Tamositis’ letter to Winokur triggered an investigation that included interviews with 45 witnesses and the review of more than 30,000 pages of documents, the DNFSB said its investigation found “that both DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture at WTP that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgement and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns.” The report noted:

  • There is a “chilled atmosphere adverse to safety” at Hanford in which employees are afraid that they will be punished if they raise safety concerns; and
  • DOE and its contractors at Hanford, Bechtel and URS, “suppress technical dissent.”

DNFSB has called upon DOE Secretary Steven Chu to “conduct a non-adversarial review of Dr. Tamosaitis' removal and his current treatment by both DOE and contractor management and how that is affecting the safety culture at WTP.”

Chu sent Winokur a letter in response to the report (see a copy of Chu’s letter here), saying DOE has developed a comprehensive plan to address the concerns in the DNFSB report. “We agree with the Board’s position that establishment of a strict safety culture must be a fundamental principle throughout the DOE complex and we are in unqualified agreement with the Board that the JVTP mission is essential to protect the health and safety of the public, our workers, and the environment from radioactive wastes in aging storage tanks at Hanford,” said Chu.

Tamosaitis is suing Bechtel and URS, alleging that he was retaliated against for whistleblowing (see a copy of the lawsuit here). Emails recently obtained from URS in pretrial discovery by attorney Jack Sheridan show that on July 1, 2010, a day after Bechel claimed the work was done supporting the bonus, DOE Manager Dale Knutson had discussions with Bechtel manager Frank Russo in which Russo criticized Tamosaitis’ concerns over the WTP. Russo wrote, “Walt is killing us.” In response to an email written by Tamosaitis discussing his concerns about WTP, Knutson wrote to Russo, “If this shows up in the press we will be sticking to our previous comment… Deliberate haste will be our approach.”

Bechtel and URS were hired by the DOE to design and build the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, which will be an industrial complex of facilities for separating and vitrifying (immobilizing in glass) millions of gallons of high-level nuclear tank waste stored in 177 large underground tanks on the Hanford site.

DOE has stated that it intends to begin building the plant before the design is completed to meet time goals. One theory is that the “deliberate haste” mentioned in the emails is related to this DOE approach.

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