Department of Energy Ignoring Safety Issues to Save Time and Money

The Department of Energy (DOE) continues to tout the importance of safety at nuclear facilities, while simultaneously ignoring legitimate safety concerns in the name of saving time and money.

Last week, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board delivered a scathing report on the ‘safety culture’, or lack thereof, being perpetuated by the DOE. Within that report, which focused on how the department handled safety complaints at a nuclear waste cleanup site in Richland, Washington, were statements from several witnesses who believed that raising safety issues could be detrimental to their career. One specific situation seemed to bear this out, in which a former Engineering Manager, Walter Tamosaitis, had raised several technical safety issues in July, and was abruptly removed from the project the next day.

These findings led the House Appropriations Committee to amend a proposed 2012 DOE budget document report, stating that:

“The most recent (defense board) report describes an environment where the professional exchange of views which a safety culture relies upon is discouraged and at times punished. These revelations are both alarming and disturbing and should be interpreted by the secretary of energy as a call to action.”

In response to the Safety Board’s review, DOE officials sent a message to their employees, informing them that Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman strongly disagree with the report, citing an investigation by the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) in which they claim that ‘most employees said they were comfortable with raising safety concerns’.

But contractors and their employees being overseen by the DOE now have an established pattern of feeling pressured to ignore safety in the name of saving time and money. In November of last year, the Albany Times Union obtained a copy of a report filed by investigators for the DOE, which cited “an atmosphere of fear among the work force not to speak up about issues of concern”. This particular report revealed the main reason that workers for the Washington Group International (WGI), a private company contracted by the DOE to clean up the Cold War-era facility, felt pressured to ignore safety issues:

Because of funding concerns, managers had “created an atmosphere of fear among the work force not to speak up about issues of concern.”

What funding could be so important, that the safety concerns of workers would be suppressed? Why stimulus funding, of course.

“The company was pushing to finish work three months earlier than first planned — by September 2011 rather than December 2011 — in order to receive an extra $32 million in federal stimulus funding awarded for the cleanup in April 2009.”

Ignoring safety issues in this case resulted in ‘an uncontrolled spread of radioactive material’ at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, New York. Elevated radiation levels were confirmed in the air surrounding the site, as well as the Mohawk River which was deluged with over 600 gallons of radioactive water – information that the DOE failed to provide to local officials, leaving those who derive their water supply from the Mohawk completely oblivious to the potential health and safety issues.

The aforementioned House Appropriations Committee budget document report would require the Energy Secretary to certify the safety of its environmental cleanup projects and identify areas of improvement. Requirements that should have been in place originally. Steven Chu, in an op-ed earlier this month, spoke of promoting ‘safe and responsible civil nuclear energy’ while building ‘a healthier, safer planet’. Yet his department has been cited on two different occasions for promoting a workplace that frowns upon raising safety concerns.

If Chu is unable to enforce his own standards, then it’s a safe bet that he should no longer serve as the U.S. Secretary of Energy.

Rusty can be contacted at The Mental Recession


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