Image: Contaminated nuclear site in Hanford, Wash.
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The Western hemisphere's most-contaminated nuclear site, in Hanford, Wash., is the subject of a nuclear safety board report criticizing what it calls a lax safety culture.
updated 6/14/2011 4:41:29 PM ET 2011-06-14T20:41:29

A lax safety culture that deters timely reporting and resolution of technical concerns is endangering the success of a $12.2 billion plant being built at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, according to a report by the national Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

The board's investigation found that the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation in south-central Washington, and contractor Bechtel National reinforced the lax safety culture, the Tri-City Herald reported Tuesday.

Bechtel National is building the plant to convert 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production into glasslike logs for permanent disposal underground.

Accusations against the Energy Department and Bechtel included burying technical reports that raised safety issues and creating an atmosphere that discouraged workers from raising technical issues that could affect the plant's safe operation.

The investigation was expanded after the board held a public hearing in Kennewick in October and additional concerns were raised, including an allegation that the Energy Department had tampered with witnesses at the hearing.

The report called for Energy Secretary Steven Chu to assert control to improve safety issues at the plant and determine if similar weaknesses affect other projects.

Bechtel steps up training
Bechtel National is committed to safety and welcomes the opportunity to review information that will help further enhance its programs and culture, company spokeswoman Suzanne Heaston said.

Bechtel has enhanced training of more than 1,500 employees and their managers over the past year, Heaston added.

Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said the agency will review the board recommendations closely to identify if additional steps are necessary to further strengthen its approach to safety.

"At every level of the Department of Energy, we take our obligation to protect the safety of our workers and the public very seriously," Stutsman said in a prepared statement provided to the newspaper. "We are committed to fostering a questioning, safety-driven attitude."

The board began investigating management attitudes and policies toward safety at the plant after Walter Tamosaitis, former engineering manager for the project, claimed he lost his position because he raised technical issues that he believed could affect the plant's safe operation.

Engineer decries punitive attitude
Tamosaitis said he was grateful that a government agency is identifying the cultural and technical issues. It's a possible step toward showing young engineers that a punitive, retaliatory environment is not the way to manage and also toward seeing the plant operate safely and correctly, he said.

The board also called for a "non-adversarial review" of his removal and his current treatment by Energy Department and contractor management.

"The DOE has been challenged by the defense board to make meaningful its empty promises of zero tolerance against reprisal against those who raise safety concerns," said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, an independent group that monitors environmental and worker-safety issues at Hanford.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

In a letter and report to Chu, defense board Chairman Peter Winokur said the investigation found that a chilled atmosphere exists on safety issues and that the Energy Department and contractor management have suppressed technical dissent.

The board interviewed 45 people and studied 30,000 pages of documents.

Tension at the plant between organizations in charge of resolving technical and safety issues is unusually high, the report said.

"This unhealthy tension has rendered the WTP project's formal processes to resolve safety issues largely ineffective," it said. "DOE reviews and investigations have failed to recognize the significance of this fact."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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