A Savannah River Site contractor has suspended all nonessential work after administrators determined that several employees committed a “significant” safety violation while storing plutonium.
Savannah River Nuclear Solutions spokeswoman Barbara Smoak said Tuesday that the company issued an “operational pause” after an incident occurred in the HB-Line on Sept. 3. Administrators said the violation involved employees improperly storing plutonium containers inside the H-Canyon chemical-separations plant that processes and assists in the disposition of nuclear materials.
She added that at no time was the facility deemed unsafe and that the temporary stop-work order halts the execution of operational procedures and technical work orders.
“The intent is to suspend work that is not essential to safe and secure operation of the site,” she said. “Routine surveillance and maintenance activities for safety, security and habitability systems; operator rounds; near-term required regulatory monitoring; emergency and medical services; response to abnormal conditions and emergencies will continue.”
Smoak said the operational pause will remain in effect until SRS administrators brief management and prepare assessment plans regarding employee behavior to ensure understanding of its expectations, “particularly with respect to procedural adherence.”
“Upon completion of these actions, deliberate operations as defined by the (U.S. Department of Energy’s) Conduct of Operations Manual can be resumed for applicable organizations,” Smoak said. “Otherwise, the applicable vice presidents shall propose a written policy to define deliberate operations for their organization that shall be approved by executive leadership, after which the organization shall operate under those approved provisions.”
Because the investigation is ongoing, Smoak did not elaborate on the number of workers who violated safety procedures or the status of their employment.
However, a DOE e-mail sent Monday to Tom Clements, the director of the watchdog group SRS Watch, said the violation came to light Sept. 8, when HB-Line operations personnel noted plutonium samples had been temporarily stored in an unapproved container.
The e-mail, sent by spokesman Jim Giusti, said a “fact finding critique” was held Sept. 10, which identified a number of concerns regarding failures to implement disciplined conduct of operations in the facility. They included violations of procedural steps and failure to stop the work when it was clear the procedure was unworkable.
“This pause will enable Savannah Nuclear River Solutions management to express expectations for safe work performance, to engage with operations staff to ensure that appropriate disciplined operational rigor is being applied … and to reinforce accountability for safety top to bottom in the organization,” Giusti told Clements.
The e-mail predates one sent to employees concerning the operational pause Sept. 11 by Carol Johnson, the president and CEO of SRNS.
“Several individuals made a conscious choice to deviate from established procedures created to ensure the safety of the people within and near the facility,” Johnson wrote. “While the investigation and corrective actions for this singular event are ongoing, there have been other recent conduct of operations issues that are also of concern to me given the standard of expectations of all employees.”
Johnson told employees that she did not want to lose sight of the great work that SRNS employees perform on a daily basis, but said this action is not taken lightly.
“Our vision is to be the standard of excellence in nuclear materials management,” she said.