Hanford Safety Problems Cited -- Audit Finds Mistakes In N-Waste Handling

WASHINGTON - Twenty-five "safety breakdowns" placed workers in danger last year at the Hanford nuclear reservation, where some of the Energy Department's most highly radioactive wastes are stored, an audit said yesterday.

The 25 safety-related incidents were among 121 "off-normal or unusual events" in handling of Cold War-era wastes at the Richland site, the General Accounting Office said in a report requested by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

"DOE facility managers are aware of the operational problems and are concerned with this level of safety-related incidents," said the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

Some of the most serious mistakes resulted in contamination of workers who failed to wear protective gear and nearly a two-month delay in special safeguards that should have been imposed when monitoring showed above-normal explosive threats in two high-level waste tanks.

One worker repeatedly crossed radioactivity warning barriers, others violated rules that only "sparkless" tools be used on the flammable tanks, and still others mistakenly took a chemical sample from the wrong, potentially explosive tank.

"According to DOE, the consequences of this event could have been more serious had the mistaken tank been on the watch list and the proper controls not been in force," the audit said about the sampling.

Wyden requested the audit to determine how well the Energy Department was operating under a 5-year-old law requiring Hanford managers to establish a tank watch list subject to special monitoring and safety measures.

The wastes were placed in the tanks for temporary storage from 1943 to 1989, when plutonium for nuclear weapons was made at Hanford, in south-central Washington.

"The fact it is 25 incidents really leaps out of you. It shows a continuing pattern of very serious safety concerns," Wyden said.

Wyden, who as a U.S. House member represented a Portland district downstream from Hanford, said he intends to take up the matter with Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.

"I will be asking her personally to take a top to bottom review of the safety program," he said.

Energy Department officials said they had no immediate response.

The audit faults the Energy Department for failing to act on recommendations from Westinghouse Hanford Co., the site manager, that additional tanks be added to the watch list.