An internal investigation has found a number of Savannah River Site workers failed to comply with a simple radiation test, a situation that could prompt sanctions or fines.
The workers were among a group of employees who do not regularly enter contaminated buildings. They must submit urine samples after a work assignment to be screened in a laboratory.
The tests, called job-specific bioassays, are needed to ensure such employees are not contaminated by plutonium or other radioactive materials.
But one-third of the 420 samples that should have been submitted, never were, SRS operator Westinghouse Savannah River Co. said Wednesday.
A vast majority of SRS employees who work in contaminated buildings -- 95 percent -- must undergo routine tests twice a year. Westinghouse found all workers in that program did comply.
The employees cited by the investigation were temporary repairmen and others who normally don't work in tainted buildings where they're at
risk of swallowing or inhaling radioactive dust.
The Energy Department's Savannah River operations office raised questions in 1995 about the efficiency of the plant's bioassay program. Westinghouse then responded by making changes "to make the administration of the program easier," said Walt Loring, manager of the company's safety and health programs.
"Unfortunately, when we checked in 1997 ... we learned that the things we had in place just weren't effective," he said Wednesday.
Since the problem was discovered last May, the plant has tried to correct the problem, Mr. Loring said.
All work permits are now cross-checked by radiological control staffers to make sure none slip through the cracks, he said.
First-line supervisors have also received additional training to be reminded of their bioassay responsibilities.
Even though a small number of workers did not submit the necessary samples, there is little concern employees have been harmed by the insufficient testing.
Because so much radiation dose data is collected every month, "even though it was a problem for us and prompted us to take corrective action, we still have assurance that we're in good shape," Mr. Loring said.
Of the 160 samples that were never submitted, 159 have since been collected, he said.
Besides jeopardizing worker safety, insufficient testing could be a violation of the federal PriceAnderson Amendments Act. The law allows the Energy Department to levy civil penalties against contractors that violate nuclear safety rules.
What prompted Westinghouse to scrutinize its bioassay program was the discovery of flawed practices at the Energy Department's Mound Plant in Ohio. The facility's contractor was fined $112,500 in October for those violations.
The problem with SRS' program has been reported to the Energy Department's headquarters in Washington. Mr. Loring said he expects the agency to "follow up."
Westinghouse was recently fined nearly $94,000 for failing to follow nuclear safety rules and causing a worker's plutonium contamination. It was the first such penalty ever levied against the company.