Hanford Nuclear Reservation
8:53 am
Tue July 12, 2011

New investigation planned into Hanford’s safety culture

RICHLAND, Wash. – The U.S. Department of Energy plans to launch a new investigation into safety culture at Hanford’s waste treatment plant, Deputy Secretary Dan Poneman reported to workers at the plant on Monday.

Poneman came to Hanford to assure federal workers and contractors they were safe to bring up any concerns with the $12 billion waste treatment plant, where the federal government plans to treat 53-million gallons of radioactive waste.

“So you need to know, and I think you probably do know that any time any of you have a safety concern you can raise it with your management,” Poneman said. “You can raise it anonymously.  We’ve got emails, we’ve got voicemails. You can do it in any way.”

While Poneman said this, some workers with crossed arms looked down, shuffled their feet.  Others listened carefully.

Critics unconvinced

One Hanford critic remains skeptical of his promises.

“I don’t care that Dan Poneman or the Secretary himself comes out here and says it’s okay to talk now,” said Tom Carpenter, head of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge. 

Carpenter pointed out one high level manager named Walt Tamosaitis who brought up concerns last year and was demoted.

“If the result is you get put in a basement office with nothing to do or you lose your job, then that’s going to be the message, not, ‘Oh it’s okay to talk.’  So we don’t see the behavior changes, all we hear are words,” Carpenter said.

Still, Poneman tried to reassure workers despite Tamosaitis’ case that his agency is trying to follow some of the recommendations of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. That federal watchdog asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to personally look into what the Board called a “flawed” safety culture at the waste treatment plant.

One of the Board’s concerns is that large mixing vessels for radioactive waste might explode or experience what engineers call a “criticality.”

Poneman told workers there will be another Energy Department investigation at the plant soon. “We’re going to be having neutral third parties interview all you folks and get any sense of what’s going on,” he said. 

Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio