Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nuclear safety rules

What's the first rule of nuclear safety? At nuclear contractor URS Corp., in charge of cleanup at Hanford Washington, it's don't talk about nuclear safety. Rule two?  if you do, you will be fired.
The head of nuclear safety for the cleanup of the former nuclear weapons site at Hanford, Wash., was fired Tuesday after allegations she made over several years that the construction project was ignoring serious safety problems.
Donna Busche, an employee of San Francisco-based URS Corp., said executives at the company told her she was being fired for "unprofessional conduct" before she was escorted out of the company's offices at the site in central Washington.
The company denied that her dismissal was punitive or connected to her criticism of the project.
Busche is at least the third senior project official at Hanford who has been fired or who left under duress after raising concerns about safety at the massive $13.4-billion construction project, which has been stalled for more than a year over concerns about its basic design.

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Busche, a nuclear engineer and health physicist who directed a staff of 140 engineers, scientists and technicians, had repeatedly raised concerns over a lack of safety in the design of a waste treatment plant during her five years at the project.
The Hanford site is the Energy Department's largest cleanup project, aiming to transform 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge held in underground tanks into solid glass. But the effectiveness of the advanced technology needed to accomplish the job is in doubt after allegations raised by several senior scientists and engineers at Hanford.
Walter Tamosaitis, the head of research at URS, was fired last year after he had raised serious concerns among outside experts about whether an innovative system for mixing waste in large tanks might allow explosive hydrogen gas to build up. The concerns led to a federal investigation and a work stoppage as the issue was considered. The matter has yet to be resolved.
Busche had raised similar concerns, saying that URS was attempting to use design tools that would enable the firm to eliminate thousands of safety features. She also alleged that the company had bypassed her staff and failed to conduct nuclear safety reviews of many of the plant's design features.
In addition to Busche and Tamosaitis, Gary Brunson, the Energy Department's engineering division director at Hanford, sent a memo in 2012 to higher-level officials that alleged 34 instances in which Bechtel, the design authority for the plant, had committed factual errors, pursued unsafe designs or provided equipment that did not meet federal standards.
Brunson, who voluntarily left his job, said that those failures had led to delays and increased costs and that the Energy Department should remove Bechtel. San Francisco-based Bechtel remains the prime contractor on the project.
When Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz visited the Hanford project last year, he met with Tamosaitis and half a dozen other concerned engineers and scientists. After the meeting, Moniz issued a statement asserting the Energy Department's commitment to safety and its willingness to hear concerns.
Not long after the statement, however, Tamosaitis was fired by URS. And Busche said Tuesday that four other people who met with Moniz have been fired, transferred or pushed out of their jobs.
The third rule? Don't talk about safety with the Energy Secretary.

By the way, URS was also a consultant for the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, charged with conducting a fatigue evaluation. The bridge collapsed in 2007. In addition, it was the design consultant for another Minneapolis bridge, the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge. That bridge experienced cable failure in 2012.

What's the fourth rule? Don't talk about bridges.

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