Friday, June 14, 2013

Meanwhile, Back at the Vit Plant

Previous posts* have chronicled the safety culture (SC) issues raised at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP aka the Vit plant) at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Hanford site.  Both the DOE Office of River Protection (ORP) and the WTP contractor (Bechtel) have been under the gun to strengthen their SC.  On May 30, 2013 DOE submitted a progress report** to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board covering both DOE and Bechtel activities.


Based on an assessment by an internal SC Integrated Project Team (IPT), ORP reported its progress on nine near-term SC improvement actions contained in the ORP SC Improvement Plan.  For each action, the IPT assessed degree of implementation (full, partial or none) and effectiveness (full, partial, or indeterminate).  The following table summarizes the actions and current status.

ORP has a lot of activities going on but only two are fully implemented and none is yet claimed to be fully effective.  In ORP's own words, “ORP made a substantial start toward improving its safety culture, but much remains to be done to demonstrate effective change. . . . Four of the nine actions were judged to be partially effective, and the other five were judged to be of indeterminate effectiveness at the time of evaluation due to the recent completion of some of the actions, and because of the difficulty in measuring safety culture change over a one-year time period.” (Smith, p. 1)

The top-level ORP actions look substantive but digging into the implementation details reveals many familiar tactics for addressing SC problems: lots of training (some yet to be implemented), new or updated processes and procedures, (incomplete) distribution of INPO booklets, and the creation of a new behavioral expectations poster (which is largely ignored).

SC elements have been added to senior management and supervisor performance plans.  That appears to mean these folks are supposed to periodically discuss SC with their people.  There's no indication whether such behavior will be included in performance review or compensation considerations.

ORP did attempt to address concerns with the Differing Professional Opinion (DPO) process.  DPO and Employee Concerns Program (ECP) training was conducted but some employees reported reservations about both programs.

A new issues management system has been well received by employees but needs greater promotion by senior managers to increase employees' willingness to raise issues and ask questions.  The revised ECP also needs increased senior management support.

The team pointed out that ORP does not have a SC management statement or policy.


There is much less detail available here.  The report says Bechtel's plan “contains 50 actions broken into six strategic improvement areas:

A. Realignment and Maintenance of Design and Safety Basis
B. Management Processes of the WTP NSQC
C. Timeliness of Issues Identification
D. Resolution. Roles. Responsibilities. Authorities, and Accountabilities
E. Management and Supervisory Behaviors
F.  Construction Site-Unique Issues

“The scheduled completion date for the last actions is December 2013. Twenty-seven actions were complete as of March 31, 2013, with an additional 12 planned to be complete by June 30, 2013.” (p. 19)

“ORP has completed surveillances on 19 of the 27 completed actions identifying 7 opportunities for improvement.  Because changing an organization's culture takes time, the current oversight efforts are focused on verifying actions have been completed.” (ibid.)  In other words, there has been no evaluation of the effectiveness of Bechtel's actions.

Our perspective

The ORP program is a traditional approach aimed at incremental organizational performance improvement.  There is no or scant mention of what we'd call strategic concerns, e.g., recognizing and addressing schedule/budget/safety goal conflicts; decision making in a complex, dynamic environment with many external pressures; riding herd on Bechtel; or creating a sense of urgency with respect to SC.

The most surprising thing to us was how unexpectedly candid the assessment was (for one produced by an employee team) in describing the program's impact to date.  For example, as the IPT performed its assessment, it tried to determine if employees were aware of the SC actions or their effects.  The results were mixed: some employees see changes but many don't, or they sense a general change but are unaware of specifics, e.g., new or changed procedures.  In general, organizational emphasis on SC declined over the year and was not very visible to the average employee.

The team's most poignant item was a direct appeal for personal involvement
by the ORP manager in the SC program.  That tells you everything you need to know about SC's priority at ORP.

*  Click on Vit Plant under Labels to see previous posts.

**  M. Moury (DOE) to P.S. Winokur (DNFSB), DOE completes Action 1-9 of the Department's Implementation Plan for DNFSB Recommendation 2011-1, Safety Culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (May 30, 2013).  A status summary memo from ORP's K.W. Smith and the IPT report are attached to the Moury letter.  Our thanks to Bill Mullins for bringing these documents to our attention.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent summary Lew,

    In reviewing this situation after a couple of weeks with the benefit of your perspective a thought was triggered - very unscientific to be sure.

    There may be a "what do you do when holding a tiger by the tail?" aspect of these Nuclear Safety Culture tightening-up ceremonies.

    When Palisades went through the wringer for a year starting in Fall 2011, all the usual analytical tools were rolled out; all the usual promises were made, the plant wasn't forced into a shutdown, but they had to do their mea culpas at a NRC conducted public meeting six months into the process.

    And then by the end of the 3rd Quarter 2012, NRC staff needed to do their closeout verification because they really didn't have any more leverage at hand - so they blessed off the Plant with nothing other than all the paper promises signed off in the corrective action system.

    Why anyone would think this is producing substantive change in a positive direction is beyond me.


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