Safety Culture

The Waste Treatment Plant (WTP, vitrification plant, vit plant) is being built to immobilize the high-level waste from Hanford’s underground tanks in glass logs, a process called vitrification.  The logs would then be sent, someday, to a deep geologic repository. Since there isn’t a deep geologic repository that has been identified, the waste will hang out at Hanford until there’s a place to put it.  The WTP has had some problems since it was first imagined.  It is billions of dollars over the original cost estimate, and the schedules have slipped so many times, using the official dates is often followed by a sarcastic smile.

Cost and schedule aside, one of the huge problems with the vit plant is a safety culture that has been hostile to workers who raise concerns about technical and other issues with the plant, and scares people who want to keep their jobs into keeping their mouths shut.   In a complicated chemical plant that is mixing highly radioactive waste with other chemicals and compounds to create a stable glass form, you REALLY want to know what the problems are before you turn the plant on and suffer the ignored or suppressed consequences.  Luckily, we are in a slightly new place where DOE and Bechtel are starting to listen to the message that before any healing can occur, top level managers need to openly acknowledge the problem.

On March 13th the Department of Energy and contractor Bechtel held a public meeting to share information about the Waste Treatment Plant.  I went with fellow HAB member Becky Holland on a mission from the Tank Waste Committee to check it out, talk to folks, and then report back at our next committee meeting.  We ended up having a long conversation about safety culture with some of the senior guys on the project both DOE and Bechtel.  Both of the guys we talked to are working pretty much full time on the safety culture issues.  It’s a good sign.  We also thought it was a good sign that we were openly encouraged to ask hard questions.  In the end though, actions are more meaningful than words.

By: Liz Mattson

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