Survey probes Hanford worker dynamic

Hanford nuclear site 2

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Few of the U.S. Department of Energy workers who are helping build a plant to treat the most dangerous radioactive wastes at a nuclear site in Washington state feel they can openly challenge management decisions, according to a report obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The survey conducted by the Energy Department shows only 30 percent of the agency's employees at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation feel they can question their bosses.

The results were somewhat better for the plant's managers who responded, with 65 percent saying they could openly challenge decisions by higher-level managers.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said the study shows recent allegations of retaliation against Hanford workers who raised safety concerns made other employees less likely to come forward.

The Energy Department, in a news release, said it "remains committed to developing and sustaining a strong nuclear safety culture."

The agency said it has taken many steps in the past year to improve the safety at Hanford and other nuclear weapons production sites around the nation.

"We have more work to do," the agency said.

Hanford, near Richland in south-central Washington, is engaged in a multi-decade cleanup of the nation's largest collection of nuclear waste.

In a pair of high-profile cases, two people who recently raised concerns about the design and safety of Hanford's unfinished Waste Treatment Plant lost their jobs. Donna Busche was fired earlier this year, while Walter Tamosaitis, a 40-year Hanford employee, was laid off last year, ostensibly for budget reasons.

The Energy Department has asked its Office of Inspector General to investigate Busche's firing.

Hanford was created during the Manhattan Project in World War II to make nuclear weapons, and continued making plutonium for the next four decades of the Cold War. The site now stores some 56 million gallons of radioactive wastes in 177 giant underground tanks. Many of those tanks have exceeded their design lifespans and are leaking.

The long-delayed Waste Treatment Plant is intended to turn that waste into glass logs for eventual burial. However, design and safety concerns have halted construction of the $12 billion one-of-a-kind facility.

The survey was taken between December 2013 and March 2014. All workers in the Energy Department's Office of River Protection were invited to participate, and about two-thirds did, the report said.

Wyden called 70 percent a "shockingly high number" of employees who feel they cannot speak freely about safety concerns.

"I have warned that allowing retaliation against whistleblowers would make employees less likely to come forward with legitimate health and safety concerns," Wyden said. "This report unfortunately confirms those fears."

The survey also found just 40 percent of employees believed constructive criticism was encouraged. Slightly more than 50 percent of workers agreed with the statement that management wanted concerns reported.

The report included numerous recommendations for fostering a culture of safety, such as managers becoming more engaged in the efforts. "Staff needs to see the commitment of all managers in these activities to believe that the efforts are sincere," the report said.

The Energy Department also surveyed employees of Bechtel National Inc., the private contractor building the treatment plant, and its main subcontractor URS Corp. Forty-five percent of those employees felt they could openly challenge decisions made by management, and 70 percent of managers felt they could freely question higher-ups, according to the report.

"We welcome recommendations that will help us build upon our solid foundation of a strong nuclear safety and quality culture," Bechtel National said in a news release.

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