The safety culture at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) waste treatment plant at the Hanford site in the state of Washington is “adverse to safety.”
The revelation comes on the heels of an investigation by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) entitled, “Safety Culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant,” which analyzed the failures in the safety culture at the waste treatment plant.
DOE hired Bechtel and URS 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.
The report came as a result of a whistleblower, Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, an engineer with URS at Hanford, who called into question whether Bechtel met a contract milestone that resulted in a multi-million dollar bonus. After he questioned the bonus issue, Tamosaitis ended up reassigned to a basement cubicle “performing no meaningful work,” said his attorney, Jack Sheridan. Tamosaitis’ employer, URS, is a subcontractor for Bechtel.
On July 16, 2010, Tamosaitis wrote a letter to DNFSB Chairman 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.”
Noting his 40 years of company service and 10 years of service at the waste treatment plant, as well as 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.
In his letter to Winokur, Tamosaitis said, “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 (waste treatment plant) 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).”
The ensuing investigation 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 they will suffer punishment 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 Tamosaitis’ removal and his current treatment by both DOE and contractor management and how that is affecting the safety culture at (waste treatment plant).”
Chu sent Winokur a letter in response to the report, saying “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.”
Tamosaitis is suing Bechtel and URS, saying he suffered from retaliation by whistleblowing. Emails show 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 waste treatment plant. Russo wrote, “Walt is killing us.” In response to an email written by Tamosaitis discussing his concerns about the waste treatment plant, 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.”