Hanford Whistleblowers Tell Of Safety Problems At DOE Facilities
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A top official of the Department of Energy conceded Thursday there were safety problems at the nation’s nuclear weapons production facilities, but she also told a House subcommittee that a major effort was under way to turn things around.
″The acknowledgement that the safety function and oversight system at DOE has not always been as effective as it should be, represents a dramatic break with the past,″ said Mary Walker, the department’s assistant secretary of environment, safety and health.
Ms. Walker’s testimony came after three ″whistleblowers″ from the Hanford nuclear reservation described a string of safety incidents and violations at the deparment’s facilities in central Washington and warned that problems still exist.
Nuclear material for weapons is produced at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state and at three reactors of the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina.
According to a published report, a nuclear accident similar to the one that destroyed the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union last year cannot be ruled out.
That assessment is contained in a draft of a National Research Council report, The Washington Post reported in its Friday editions. The report is scheduled to be released next week, the Post said.
The chairman of the panel refused comment, the Post said, because the report was under review and subject to change.
″I’ve seen no visible change,″ testifed Mark Hermanson, a senior engineer with the Westinghouse Hanford Co. ″They should concentrate on fixing problems and not concentrate on running the plants at this time.″
Casey Ruud, another senior engineer with Westinghouse, said audits and quality assurance reports he and others have prepared have been ignored or downplayed by managers at Hanford and that some auditors are not qualified.
″There are people out there who are less than qualified to do quality assurance work and numerous of them are in critical positions,″ said Ruud.
Ruud, Hermanson and James Simkin, a Westinghouse inspector, all said increasing demands for the raw materials used in nuclear weapons had contributed to the safety problems at Energy Department facilities.
″I haven’t been at the N Reactor for three months, but when I left the pressure was still there,″ said Simkin.
Rudd said that because of production pressures, he didn’t think contractors were ″capable of handling this (safety) unless they have someone monitor them.″
In their testimony, Hermanson, Rudd and Simkin, told the subcommittee:
- Tests were conducted at the N reactor at a time when inspection personnel were in areas where they could have been killed if something went wrong.
- Quality assurance inspectors who were found to lack proper certification were switched to other facilities at Hanford where they continued to perform similar duties.
- Radioactive dirt and other materials were dumped without authorization in open pits ″where it could be blown around by the wind.″
- Workers at one facility were contaminated with plutonium while replacing filters in a glove box, an incident that could have been avoided if contractors had heeded warnings of a design flaw.
- Questions about the calibration of ″key″ instruments at one plant, including ones involving fire, radiation and criticality detection, have still not been resolved.
Ms. Walker said that questions about the safety and adequacy of DOE facilities have ″legitimately″ been raised, but she added ″the environmental and safety issues that stem from 40 years of operations cannot be solved overnight.″
Ms. Walker said that progress in reducing nuclear accident risks at federal facilities has not kept pace with that in the commercial sector; some aging facilities are overdue for replacement or major refurbishment; and DOE efforts to ensure good safety practices are followed ″did not possess the rigor and accountability that should be demanded of nuclear operations.″
″This agressive oversight, this attention to the letter and spirit of environment and safety compliance, has not been consistently applied in the past,″ she said.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, said DOE had promised time and again that it would not operate a plant that wasn’t safe.
″Despite this policy, the subcommittee has found substantial evidence that the bomb factories have been operating, despite serious breakdowns in safety procedures,″ Dingell said.
Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the facilities ″dinosaurs″ and said the department’s programs operate at ″embarrassingly primitive levels.″
Wyden said the former prime contractor at Hanford received a $2.2 million ″award fee″ last year despite DOE’s acknowledgement of serious safety deficiencies at Hanford facilities.
″It’s high time we begin to rein in this rogue agency,″ said Wyden.