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Hanford Nuclear-Waste Safety May Not Be Assured, Markey Says

Nov. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Energy Department may not have adequately responded to safety questions and allegations of retaliation against whistle-blowers at a nuclear-waste treatment plant in Washington state, Representative Edward Markey said.

The agency hasn’t strengthened the safety culture at the department’s Hanford Site, Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a seven-page letter today to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Nine nuclear reactors and processing facilities produced plutonium at Hanford, which operated from 1944 to 1987. The man-made radioactive element was used in atomic bombs, including the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 that helped to end World War II. Workers are trying to clean up millions of gallons of toxic waste at the complex.

“My understanding is that despite the emergence of new, serious complaints,” including punishment of employees raising safety issues, “and its own studies that show the project is seriously troubled,” the department “continues to assert that the technical matters raised by these individuals are inaccurate,” Markey said in the letter.

Jen Stutsman, an Energy Department spokeswoman, said the agency in the past six months “has taken a number of steps to continue strengthening the safety culture” at the treatment plant, “including senior-level DOE management visits to the site, establishing new avenues for employees to raise technical and safety concerns and undergoing numerous external reviews,”

The department “will not tolerate any retaliation for workers raising safety or technical concerns,” she said today in an e-mailed statement.

Independent Board

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent organization in the executive branch that advises the president and the Energy secretary, issued a June 9 report criticizing the handling of the case by the Energy Department and its contractors, Markey said in the letter.

President Barack Obama’s administration requested $5.4 billion for defense-related environmental cleanup in its 2012 budget. About $1.36 billion was for the Office of River Protection, which is in charge of handling radioactive waste stored underground at the Hanford site.

The Energy Department is building a $12.3 billion waste treatment plant at Hanford, according to an August department report. The project may be $800 million to $900 million over budget, the agency said.

Bechtel Comment

The board’s assertions about the waste-treatment plant’s culture “have not been ignored,” Suzanne Heaston, a spokeswoman for a Bechtel Group Inc. unit that is a contractor on the project, said today in an e-mail. “Several independent reviews are currently being conducted to assess the strength of our safety culture and to provide recommendations on areas for continuous improvement.”

Walt Tamosaitis, a research manager at the treatment plant, was demoted after alerting Energy Department contractors in 2010 about his concerns that improper treatment of high-level waste might cause plutonium to settle and hydrogen-gas bubbles might form, leading to an explosion, according to Markey’s letter.

The agency “seems to be more interested in paying contractor fees than in paying attention to safety concerns or to those who are disciplined for raising them,” Markey said today in a statement.

He asked Chu to provide answers by Dec. 16 about the forecast cost of the treatment plant and steps the department took to investigate and resolve issues raised by the defense nuclear-safety board.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Wingfield in Washington at bwingfield3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at lliebert@bloomberg.net

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