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Safety Breach Closes A-Plant at Hanford

Times Staff Writer

At 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 29 a breach of safety occurred at the Hanford Reservation, the federal government’s top-secret plutonium plant near here.

A highly concentrated plutonium solution was transferred from one holding tank to another for temporary storage. Only after the transfer took place did someone realize that a pipe linking the second tank to a third tank was still connected.

Although six valves prevented the liquid from entering the third tank, the U.S. Department of Energy reacted with alarm when it learned of the incident.

If the valves had been open and the concentrated plutonium solution had entered the third tank, the liquid could have gone “critical,” the point at which a nuclear chain reaction takes place. Such a sudden reaction could have exposed workers to intense heat and lethal doses of radiation.

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54 ‘Criticality’ Incidents

The episode--one of 54 “criticality” incidents here in the last two years--was so disturbing that the Energy Department took the unprecedented step on Oct. 8 of indefinitely shutting down that plant, as well as another one nearby. Together, the two plants, operated by Rockwell International, produce a major share of the nation’s plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

A top Energy Department official and a plant auditor said the Sept. 29 incident fits a pattern of shoddy work practices, nuclear safety violations and repeated lapses in procedures to guard against the theft of weapons-grade plutonium.

In the immediate aftermath of the disclosures, Rockwell said Friday that it has fired three middle-level managers, demoted one plant manager and his assistant and reassigned a sixth person.

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A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is poised to expand an ongoing investigation into the Energy Department’s nuclear operations throughout the nation, and there are fears that what is happening at Hanford may only be the tip of the iceberg. Hanford and other Energy Department nuclear facilities, unlike commercial plants, are not regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

At the same time, extensive health studies have been strongly recommended after the release in February of information, some of it previously classified, detailing 40 years of radioactive contamination from all Hanford operations of the nearby Columbia River, the soil and atmosphere.

The “criticality crisis” is but the latest controversy to hit the government’s 570-square-mile nuclear reservation in the desert of eastern Washington, 30 miles north of here.

Just five months ago, after the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster, national attention was focused on Hanford’s aging N Reactor, which like the Chernobyl plant has a graphite core to moderate the nuclear reaction.

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There were numerous reports of poor maintenance and training practices at the 25-year-old reactor, which is operated by UNC Nuclear Industries. Even old flashlight parts were found rattling through the reactor’s primary cooling system.

Manufacture of Plutonium

The reactor is the first step in the manufacture of plutonium here. The reactor’s used fuel rods are processed at the two Rockwell plants, where plutonium is extracted and processed into plutonium metal for use in nuclear weapons.

Hanford operations manager Michael J. Lawrence, the top-ranking Energy Department official here, said the plutonium production lines will not be restarted until he is sure that the problems are corrected at the two plants.

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The closure followed widespread publicity over findings by a Rockwell auditor, Casey Ruud, who twice called for shutting down the plants. But his findings, contained in internal company reports, were kept under wraps by Rockwell and did not come to the attention of the Energy Department until they were leaked to the Seattle Times.

Ruud’s audit report, obtained by the Los Angeles Times from a congressional source, found unauthorized shipping and receiving of nuclear materials, improper storage of nuclear materials that could lead to a “criticality” incident, incomplete inventory records, and undocumented design changes in equipment that could make blueprints useless in responding to emergencies.

After Ruud’s audits were leaked, he was asked by the Energy Department to join a special investigation examining his findings and the overall performance of his employer, Rockwell.

As such, Ruud, 31, said he is not free to publicly discuss details of his findings. But he confirmed that the published reports were accurate. Those reports included his comment that Rockwell management failed to correct many of the deficiencies and that the Energy Department had failed in its oversight capacity.

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Ruud told The Times that breakdowns in security and safety measures were so common that they were not hard to spot.

“It was easy. It was like walking into a candy store with no proprietor watching,” Ruud said.

He also said his concerns were real. “I don’t go out to prove problems that aren’t problems. I’m looking at the effectiveness of (safety, quality assurance and security) systems, not some little guy that makes a mistake.”

Auditor Debriefed

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Ruud has been extensively debriefed by the Energy Department and was interviewed by the House subcommittee staff.

Lawrence vouched for Ruud’s credibility. “The preliminary analysis is that Mr. Ruud is a very thorough, conscientious quality assurance inspector and that he writes factual reports,” Lawrence said.

But there were questions about Rockwell’s operations long before Ruud’s audits.

In March, 1985, Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, during a plant tour, drove through a reportedly mildly contaminated area because a Rockwell manager--who has since resigned--ordered the removal of a warning sign because he did not want it known that a 3-month-old spill had not been cleaned up. After the governor left the plant, the sign was put back up.

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“If they would go to this extent to hide something so minor, what does that say if there was a major incident over there?” asked Gardner’s press secretary, Dick Milne.

Lawrence said the Energy Department is “taking this situation very seriously. I don’t want anybody to misinterpret that. But, we have an extremely favorable safety record.”

In July, the Energy Department released its annual evaluation of Rockwell’s performance for 12 months ending last March and gave an overall rating of “very good.”

But, in the face of Ruud’s audits, the Sept. 29 mistake and the incident involving the governor, questions have been raised about the credibility of the evaluations, and new calls have been made for an independent government agency to oversee operations by the Energy Department and its private contractors, such as Rockwell.

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Among those questioning the Energy Department credibility is Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the House committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, and Gardner, who said that Ruud’s audits “read like a script from a disaster movie.”

‘A Textbook Case’

Wyden charged that Rockwell and the Energy Department have placed production goals ahead of safety and security. He added: “The DOE is the largest, self-regulating agency in government. The same people who produce all these dangerous wastes tell us that everything is OK from an environment and health standing. It’s a textbook case of the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Jeff Hodges of the subcommittee staff observed: “It’s a curious thing that Rockwell and DOE have been saying they have such a very fine program. If that’s the case, why were they forced to shut down two of the most important facilities in the country that everyone has been led to believe is critical to the national defense and security? Is management adequate when you have to do something like that?”

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There is no independent oversight of the Energy Department’s reactors and other nuclear operations--which are principally directed for national defense purposes. Instead, the Energy Department contracts with private corporations to run the facilities and acts as its own watchdog.

Over the years, there have been repeated calls for a change, but they have been successfully resisted by the Energy Department and its predecessors.

Despite the problems, Lawrence said he continues to oppose giving an oversight role to an outside governmental agency such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, although he said he expected such calls to intensify.

“I think bringing in an outside agency would not make matters better. . . . We have more of an oversight day to day than the NRC has on commercial reactors because we’re here,” Lawrence said.

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Lawrence denied that the Energy Department had put any pressure on Rockwell to produce at the expense of safety. He said he believed that top Rockwell management shared the department’s concern for safety first.

But, Lawrence indicated that lower-level management may be more concerned about meeting production quotas. He said there was “concern” that the importance of safeguards was not getting through to employees “either intentionally or unintentionally.”

The importance of the Sept. 29 incident, he said, was that it indicated that Rockwell was “deficient” in complying with a broad range of acceptable procedures.

“It was not this specific incident that (shut) the plants down. The stop-work order was based upon our review of their procedures, documentation and disciplined way of doing business, which we felt was deficient.”

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