Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Nuclear Safety Culture at the Department of Energy—An Update

We haven’t reported on the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) safety culture (SC) in awhile.  Although there hasn’t been any big news lately, we can look at some individual facts and then connect the dots to say something about SC.

Let’s start with some high-level good news.  In late 2016 DOE announced it had conducted its 100th SC training class for senior leaders of both federal and contractor entities across the DOE complex.*  The class focuses on teaching leaders the why and how of maintaining a collaborative workplace and Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE), and fostering trust in the work environment. 

Now let’s turn to a more localized situation.  In Feb 2014, a storage drum burst at the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, resulting in a small release of radioactive material.  The drum burst because a sorbent added to the waste had been changed without considering the difference in chemical properties.**  This has been an expensive incident.  The plant has been closed for over three years; it was authorized to reopen in Jan 2017 and shipments are scheduled to resume in April 2017.*** 

The drum that burst came from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  The WIPP Recovery Plan envisions continuing the pre-incident practice of the waste generators being responsible for correctly packing their waste: “All waste generators will have rigorous characterization, treatment, and packaging processes and procedures in place to ensure compliance with WIPP Waste Acceptance Criteria [WAC].”****  As we said in our May 3, 2016 post: “For this approach to work, WAC compliance by the waste generators . . . must be completely effective and 100% reliable.”  In the same post, we reported the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) had recognized this weak link in the chain.  However, because DNFSB cannot force changes it could only recommend that DOE “explore defense-in-depth measures that enhance WIPP’s capability to detect and respond to problems caused by unexpected failures in the WAC compliance program.”

As described in the current WAC, WIPP’s “defense-in-depth” appears to be limited to the local DOE office and the WIPP contractor performing Generator Site Technical Reviews, which cover sites’ implementation of WIPP requirements.*****  These reviews are supposed to assure that deficiencies are detected and noncompliant shipments are avoided but it’s not clear if any physical surveillance is involved or if this is strictly a paperwork exercise.

The foregoing is important because it ties to SC.  Firstly, WIPP has had SC issues, in fact, a deficient SC was identified as contributing to shortcomings in the handling of the aftermath of the drum explosion.  (We reviewed this in detail on May 3 and May 5, 2014.)  WIPP SC is supposedly better now: “NWP [the WIPP contractor] has made continuous improvements in their safety culture and has really embraced the recommendations provided in the 2015 review, as well as subsequent reviews and surveys.”^  Secondly, other SC problems, too myriad to even list here, have arisen throughout the DOE complex over the years.  (Click on the DOE label to see our reports on such problems.)

Finally, we present a recent data point for LANL.  In DOE’s report on criticality safety infractions and program non-compliances for FY 2016, LANL had the most such incidents, by far, of the DOE’s 24 sites and projects.^^  Most of the non-compliances were self-identified.  Now does this evidence a strong SC that recognizes and reports its problems or a weak SC that allows the problems to occur in the first place?  You be the judge.

Our Perspective

Through initiatives such as SC training, it appears that at the macro level, DOE is (finally) communicating that minimally complying with basic regulations for how organizations should treat employees is not enough; establishing trust, mainly through showing respect for employees’ efforts to raise safety questions and point out safety problems, is essential.  That’s a good thing.

But we see signs of weakness at the operational level, viz., between WIPP and its constellation of waste generators.  Although we are not fans of “Normal Accident” theory which says accidents are inevitable in tightly coupled, low slack environments, e.g., a nuclear power plant, we can appreciate the application of that mental model in the case of WIPP.  Historically, one feature of the DOE complex that has limited problems to specific locations is the weak coupling between facilities.  When every facility with bomb-making waste is shipping it to WIPP, tighter coupling is created in the overall waste management system.  Every waste generator’s SC can have an impact on WIPP’s safety performance.  The system does need more defense-in-depth.  At a minimum, WIPP should station resident inspectors at every waste generator site to verify compliance with the WAC.

Bottom line: DOE is trying harder in the SC space but their history does not inspire huge confidence going forward. 


*  “DOE Conducts 100th Safety Culture Training Class” (Dec. 29, 2016).

**  Organic kitty litter had been substituted for inorganic kitty litter.  See this Jan. 10, 2017 Forbes article for a good summary of the WIPP incident.

***  “WIPP Road Show Early Stops Planned in Carlsbad & Hobbs,” WIPP website (Feb. 27, 2017).  Retrieved March 7, 2017. 

****  DOE, “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Plan,” Rev 0 (Sept. 30, 2014), p. 24.

*****  DOE, “Transuranic Waste Acceptance Criteria for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” Rev 8.0 (July 5, 2016), pp. 20-21.

^  DOE, “Department of Energy Operational Readiness Review for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (Dec. 2016), p. 33.

^^   DOE, “2016 Annual Metrics Report to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board – Nuclear Criticality Safety Programs” (Jan. 2017), p. 3.

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