In the same week that the management and operations contractor at the Savannah River Site (SRS) was presented with a prestigious safety award, a report from an independent overseer is questioning the safety culture at the South Carolina weapons complex site.
On Wednesday, the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded SRS contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS) its “Star of Excellence” Safety Award. The award is given to those sites demonstrating excellence in safety performance and excelling by performing outreach efforts to other sites, according to DOE.
However, this week a report from the board responsible for independent oversight of all activities affecting nuclear safety within DOE's nuclear weapons complex has questioned recent accidents and near misses -- and notes concerns of their similarities.
Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board representative D.L. Burnfield noted in a report released Monday that an incident where protective clothing was damaged during plutonium work and contamination of worker was possible, bore similarities to a recent event where a worker was injured and discovered to have plutonium contamination beneath his skin.
"While the worker was not contaminated, this event bears similarities to the puncture wound that occurred in F-Area," the report noted. "Specifically, the ability to provide oversight or peer review of the operation being performed was impaired. The workers did not exhibit the necessary desire to stop the operation when they were approaching the limits of their task... Furthermore, management did not understand that the problems were occurring."
The worker in the recent incident was using equipment to open a canister containing legacy plutonium. The so-called 3013 container, which could contain up to 4.4 pounds of plutonium, was being opened inside a glovebox. 3013 containers get their name from the DOE standard which regulates them.
When the can cutter would not cut the container properly, the worker grasped the rough end of the can without using leather gloves. His glovebox glove snagged on a burr and tore.
The worker said he “instinctively reached” in with the other hand and grabbed the cut end of the can and the glovebox glove snagged on the can burs and tore.
The instinct to do something even perceived to be unsafe violates the safety mantra of SRS. The site where DuPont is worshiped for drilling procedures into employees frowns on anything other than those who work, or walk, anywhere except the specific path laid out for them.
The previous F-Area incident involved a subcontract worker suffering a puncture wound which left contamination beneath the skin. While working on packaging transuranic waste in F-Canyon, the unnamed worker suffered the wound on his hand, just below the right index finger. According to reports from the Site, tests revealed that plutonium 238, 239 and americium 241 were present under the man's skin even after "tissue" was removed from the area.
For years SRS' safety record has been top of the DOE charts. SRNS CEO and President Garry Flowers described it as " an enviable safety heritage," Wednesday.
Since taking over the contract in 2008, SRNS' safety record has been under attack, especially after accidents made local headlines in mid-2009. Detractors have claimed the general culture of safety-first was diminished. However, since Flowers came to SRNS to replace former CEO, Admiral (Ret.) Chuck Munns, in 2009 SRS safety record has led the nation.
“Time and again Savannah River Nuclear Solutions has proven how highly they value employee safety,” said Inés Triay, DOE Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management Wednesday congratulating SRNS on their award. “We recognize that their safety culture is one to be appreciated and imitated.”
The DNFSB is an independent Federal agency operating within the Executive Branch chartered by Congress to provide recommendations to the DOE on the safety of defense nuclear facilities.
SRNS is the management and operations contractor at SRS. Their contract began in August 2008 and runs from through December 2012 with a five-year option from January 2013 through December 2017. The deal is a cost-plus award-fee contract valued at approximately $800 million per year for the five-year base period. They also are overseeing $1.4 billion in Recovery Act money that was funneled into the site.