By MIA STEINLE
Some workers who are designing and building a major nuclear weapons facility for the government say they feel pressure to put deadlines ahead of safety, according to a recent Department of Energy report.
“Interviewees indicated that schedule pressures can inhibit reporting of concerns,” the report said.
“The heavy emphasis on performance metrics and cost, often at the perceived expense of understanding and developing the right technology, has created issues for the completion of the project,” the report said.
The June report focused on part of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that is intended to consolidate operations involving bomb-grade uranium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. When completed, the Uranium Processing Facility will be used for the assembly, disassembly and storage of bomb components and of bomb-grade uranium, according to its website.
The report was posted on a government web site just days after a major security breach at Y-12 last month, when three protesters, including an 82-year-old nun, broke into a high-security area of Y-12. The anti-nuclear activists bypassed security guards and several fences to enter the complex, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported. The new uranium facility is being built in the same high-security area.
A team of external safety culture experts evaluating the ongoing design and construction work for the Department of Energy interviewed and surveyed more than 800 people involved in the project. Those interviewed are employed by the government or by private companies under contract to the government.
The feedback from workers was mixed.
The Uranium Processing Facility “is perceived by many contractor interviewees to have a strong focus on overall safety,” the report said.
The main project contractor is Babcock & Wilcox, which manages several other nuclear facilities for the Department of Energy. Project subcontractors include Merrick & Co., Jacobs Engineering, CH2M and URS Corp., according to the report.
Babcock & Wilcox did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One of the promised benefits of the nearly $7 billion facility is the “protection of workers, the environment, and the public due to close adherence to today’s codes and standards,” according to the project website.
But many of the workers interviewed “indicated that they perceive a lot of pressure to meet PBIs” – performance-based incentives – potentially at the expense of safety, the report said.
“Some interviewees indicated that problems that affect the safety and operation of the facility need to be evaluated in terms of schedule and budget impact prior to the decision to resolve them,” the report said.
The report said there are “negative perceptions around feeling free to challenge management decisions” at the site. It added that there is “a lack of ownership and accountability for safety” among contractors on the project.
“There is the expectation [among the contractors] that someone else or something else will take care of accountability,” the report said.
Mia Steinle is an investigator at the Project On Government Oversight.