RICHLAND, Wash. – More Hanford workers are starting to raise safety concerns about a massive nuclear waste treatment plant under construction in southeast Washington. A federal nuclear watchdog agency has called the safety culture at the Hanford facility "flawed." That finding is bolstered by a string of new letters from workers who say they have firsthand knowledge of problems at the plant.
In early July, the number two manager at the U.S. Department of Energy came to Hanford. Dan Poneman's visit came after a critical report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. It said Hanford managers and designers are afraid to bring up safety issues, especially those affecting budget or project time lines. Poneman tried to ease those worries.
"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," he said. "And you need to know that you can do this without any fear of reprisal or retribution of any sort."
Since that visit, 10 letters of concern from people claiming to be Hanford workers have been posted on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board's website. Their opinions and personal experiences vary but the common theme is that Hanford's safety culture is flawed.
Murray Thorson wrote one of those letters.
"When (Poneman) came here," Thorson says, "I believe that he was looking for the truth and I thought I had relevant information to share. And I thought it wouldn't be ethically right not to share it."
Thorson is a chemical engineer for one of the Hanford contractors. For the last 10 years he's worked on the waste treatment plant, for a time under the direction of a former manager who's become a well-known whistleblower, Walter Tamosaitis. Now, Thorson works for a different contractor, spending part of his time reviewing designs for the waste treatment plant. Thorson says some might say he's a stickler for details. But he says when it comes to treating nuclear waste, it's the details that matter. And he says fixing problems will be harder as construction gets further along.
"It isn't fair for me to say, 'I know more than other people,'" he says. "Instead it's, 'I know there are legitimate issues that need to be resolved and it doesn't appear they're being resolved at a pace that will get the job done before start up is supposed to occur.'"
In his letter, Thorson says several times when he's raised concerns about the plant, he's been reprimanded or had his reputation or career injured. He attributes that to the amount of pressure the government and its contractors are under to build the plant on time and within budget. Government contracts include rewards, in the millions of dollars, for the companies if they meet certain deadlines. So Thorson says there is little management tolerance of any slowdowns.
"As issues are brought up they are not worked out thoroughly for the long-term mission," Thorson says. "The focus easily can become shorter term."
Few workers on the waste treatment plant have raised concerns like this publicly, especially those still employed on the project. Thorson is an unlikely whistleblower. His father was a Hanford engineer. Thorson was reluctant to be interviewed. But he has an analogy for his decision to speak up now.
As a young man Thorson was on a logging crew that prepared clear-cut areas for burning. His job was to chop out the roots with an axe to prevent fire from spreading into the open forest. Some workers would just dust over some of those roots to pass inspection.
"The right thing to do is to cut the root out. But it also slows down the progress," he says. "It takes more effort to do the right thing. Where if you dress it up you can get through it faster."
He adds: "When I was doing the job, I would take the roots out."
The U.S. Department of Energy issued a statement in response to our questions about Thorson's letter. Spokeswoman Jen Stutsman says her agency is "strongly committed to the health and safety of our workers and the public." She says, "we appreciate the feedback we've received from both current and former employees as we work to further strengthen the safety culture at the site and ensure that the plant operates safely."
Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio
On the web:
Read Murray Thorson's letter: http://www.dnfsb.gov/sites/default/files/Board%20Activities/Letters/2011/ltr_2011718_15356.pdf
Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Website:
Department of Energy's Daniel Poneman: