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Hanford workers raise safety concerns, test DOE commitment

As more Hanford workers come forward with safety concerns, the Department of Energy's commitment to listen and protect them will be tested.
Northwest News Network
As more Hanford workers come forward with safety concerns, the Department of Energy's commitment to listen and protect them will be tested.

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.

Problems compound

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. He says some might say he’s a stickler for details, but 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.

Slowdowns frowned upon

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.

DOE responds

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.”

“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.”

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Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.