Wednesday, February 1, 2012

VIT Plant Glop (Part 2)

(Ed. note: We're pleased to present an interesting take on the Vit Plant from Bill Mullins as a guest contributor.  We welcome contributions from others who would like to contribute leading edge thinking on nuclear safety culture.)

Bob Cudlin’s Jan. 24 post concludes, "Our advice for the Vit Plant would be as follows.  In terms of expectations, enforcing rather than setting might be the better emphasis."

From where I sit, in this simple piece of seemingly practical advice hides much of the iceberg the WTP Titanic keeps circling around to repeatedly encounter amidst the fog of Nuclear Safety Culture (NSC) and such.

The key word is "expectations” – this is because for DOE the definition of Quality is “performance that meets or exceeds requirements and expectations.” Importantly the DOE Quality standard embraces a “continuous improvement” criterion. This definition of Quality and its attendant context are considerably more expansive than the one found at 10 CFR 50 Appendix B – and there is a very necessary reason for that.

At the Program level all the DOE Mission portfolios are of the Discover and Develop type. DOE programs and projects are chartered to go where none has gone before (i.e. nor generally can afford the capital risks to go such places first).

Not every project in DOE is of comparable difficulty, but many (e.g., the Environmental Management Program) of the sub-portfolios (e.g., Hanford Cleanup) take decades of trial and error practice to create reliable Acquisition Strategies.

Even now the Hanford Cleanup work is pretty well partitioned between 1) things we now do reliably and with a modicum of efficiency (cf. River Corridor Cleanup contract), and 2) that Goop/Gorp unconventional uncertainty. Today the former goes well and the latter goes poorly.

The WTP is a full-blooded Discover and Develop enterprise - the high-level tank waste is vastly more subtle in its physical chemistry than DOE and its prime contractor have been willing to acknowledge to their stakeholders in the Tri-Party Agreement with EPA and WA State. The stakeholders seem reluctant to puncture the veil of schedule illusion as well.

Generally I conclude the River Protection Program (RPP), which governs the WTP development, is not sufficiently aware of its vulnerability to unconventional uncertainty. It is the more unpredictable behavior of the tank waste that should be the center of attention; not unrealistic schedules and life cycle budget estimates into the far future.

It is this (some would say “studied”) blindness that the DNFSB is ultimately getting at via its nuclear safety oversight charter – I’m inclined to doubt that the Board recognizes the blind spot any better than most in DOE leadership. Like the carpenter with only a hammer on his tool belt, the Board’s way of framing issues with progress at the RPP tends to make every unanticipated or unwelcome outcome seem like a “nuclear safety nail.”

At the end of most days this over-dramatization of nuclear safety significance has been a deliberate strategy of the Board since it began its Safety in Design “action-forcing” campaign about four years ago.

In broad reality, the situation of the RPP can be viewed as a matter of inadequate safety consciousness or poorly chosen Acquisition Strategy – the latter perspective has more traction precisely because in encompasses protection concerns without being dragged into the “good vs. bad” attitude debates – which tend to be the heart of NSC conversations - that are presently fogging the air of the Hanford 200 Area.

Later in Bob’s post he observes: “In fact, reading all the references and the IP leave the impression that DOE believes there is no fundamental safety culture issue.”

This conclusion is not without its supporting evidence: From the time that the Walt Thomasitus pushback on Bechtel Management began, DOE Office of River Protection project management has responded from a position that reeks annoyance and resentment. This has not helped with sorting out the key issues at the WTP, in fact when the Recommendation 2011-1 appeared the knee-jerk defensive response of the Deputy Secretary actually made things worse for a time.

There are now three prominent whistle-blowers feeding the maw of both GAO and the national press.*  Unfortunately, Thomasitus, Alexander, and Busche each raise concerns about whether the plant will work as advertised – not as matters of Acquisition Strategy, but as safety issues. That is unfortunate because it leads to this: “The treatment plant "is not a project that can be stopped and restarted," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.”**

Just lately, we have a memorandum from the Secretary and Deputy Secretary that I believe finally puts a suitable Line Management framework around the 2011-1 IP and the WTP issue.  It will take a further post to elaborate the basis for my belief that this particular memorandum “answers the mail” about NSC in the DOE nuclear programs. At that point I can also suggest what I see as the barriers to this missive gaining the policy high ground against the wave of other “over-commitments” throughout the remainder of the 2012-1 IP.

(Mr. Mullins is a Principal at Better Choices Consulting.)

*  P. Eisler, “Problems plague cleanup at Hanford nuclear waste site,” USA Today (Jan. 25, 2012).

**  P. Eisler, “Safety at Wash. nuclear-waste site scrutinized,” USA Today (Jan. 27, 2012).

***  Letter from D.B. Poneman to P.S. Winokur transmitting DOE Memorandum dated Dec. 5, 2011 from S. Chu and D.B. Poneman to Heads of All Departmental Elements re: Nuclear Safety at the Department of Energy (Jan. 24, 2012).

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