Originally created 02/28/05

SRS spinoff thrives globally



AIKEN - When the U.S. Air Force wants to sling a satellite into space with one of its Delta IV heavy rockets, it's a simple matter of rolling a more than 1-million-pound booster along a mile-long path to a Cape Canaveral launch pad.

There, a piston-driven cradle gently stands the 200-foot rocket on its tail.

Next, a 10-story, 9-million-pound service tower lumbers up on railroad tracks and surrounds the rocket, its peak arching over the Delta IV's tip like a boxy cathedral.

Finally, rocket technicians add a 394,000-pound jigger of volatile liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel before lighting the match.

What could possibly go wrong? A lot.

To make sure nothing does, Boeing Expendable Launch Systems, the contractor for this gargantuan Air Force complex, relied on a little-known cadre of risk analysis engineers based in a brick-veneer box off Whiskey Road.

"There aren't many projects that are more high-hazard than a rocket launch," said Pres Rahe, the president of Washington Group International's Energy and Environmental Business unit, the parent company of these scientific odds-makers of risk. "We had to make sure that when they threw the ignition switch to fire the rockets that this would work successfully."

For nine months in 2001, more than 75 hired guns from Washington Safety Management Solutions ran start-up tests on the tower and other components of the launch complex, checking the lumbering reliability of the complicated machinery. They also wrote the rule book for its safe operation.

"That was a gigantic job for us," said Mr. Rahe, the first chief of Washington Safety Management Solutions.

It was also proof that Mr. Rahe was right when he led 140 risk analysis engineers out of the confines of Savannah River Site in 1997 to compete for work for somebody other than the U.S. Department of Energy.

If there's a poster child for the dream of spinning high-tech expertise out of SRS for far-flung jobs and profits, it might be the home office of Washington Safety Management Solutions.

Quietly, Mr. Rahe and his successors have taken a specialized discipline developed for the dying art of making nuclear reactors safe for Cold War weapons work and turned it into a $100 million globe-trotting business that employs more than 500 people worldwide.

Along the way, this spinoff division of Washington Group International, the parent company of the main SRS contractor, Westinghouse Savannah River Co., found a way to apply its sophisticated method of parsing risk to a universe beyond the confines of the federal nuclear site.

At border checkpoints in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the company's experts train guards on how to use atomic detectors to sniff out smuggled nuclear material.

For NASA's exploration of space, they spun out a risk analysis for the Mars rover, including odds on the likelihood its plutonium heating system would blow up during launch. They also assessed how well the rover could be expected to perform as it crawls across the frozen planet.

At the Naval Air Station in Key West, Fla., they helped safety manager Ron Cooke cut the accident rate almost in half at one of the Navy's worst bases for worker mishaps. Last year, the base was one of the few in the Southeast to meet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's goals for reducing worker accidents by 25 percent for two consecutive years.

And at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the company's risk experts have taken off-the-shelf technology to build the world's first dirty-bomb detector.

All this comes from a shop that was on the verge of extinction with the end of the Cold War and the cancellation of plans to jump-start a nuclear reactor at SRS for weapons work.

For U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Washington Safety is a model for future jobs at SRS, which is on the verge of a massive cutback of 2,000 employees this year and next.

"This is a great example of how you take core competencies and apply them to problems that go far beyond the scope of the Savannah River Site," he said. "The more jobs we can create through spinoffs like this, the better off we're going to be."

SPINOFF SUCCESS didn't happen overnight for Washington Safety.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Rahe, who is now president of Washington Group International's Energy and Environment Business Unit, was the head of a cadre of reactor safety specialists with experience in the nuclear power industry, atomic weapons work and the Navy's nuclear fleet.

He faced a tough decision.

With the end of the Cold War, SRS didn't need his team's full roster of safety management specialists. He had to find them new work or watch most of them leave Aiken and scatter to new jobs.

"Our first instinct was survival and how can we keep this group together and where else in the DOE complex could this expertise be applied," Mr. Rahe said.

In October 1997, after voting among themselves three times, Mr. Rahe and 140 safety specialists left SRS and formed Washington Safety Management Solutions.

The team was farmed out to 20 DOE sites around the country, tackling the nuclear safety problems they knew best.

By 2000, they had started hunting for projects in other fields. That's what made the Boeing launch system project so crucial to their success - it was proof that the safety management programs they developed for nuclear reactors would work for other complex, high-hazard systems.

"I say if it's hazardous and complex, that's where our sweet spot is," said Jim Little, the president of Washington Safety Management Solutions. "If it's complex and hazardous, that's what gets our juices flowing."

Then, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "safety management developed a whole new meaning," Mr. Rahe said.

In 2002, the group was asked to design, build and install the world's first dirty-bomb detector at Lackland AFB.

"It was proof that the disciplines and rigorous safety management procedures we developed for nuclear facilities would work on different systems," he said.

This work opened up a new world of security projects that have Mr. Little's safety gurus hopping all over the world.

At the Naval Air Station in Key West, Ron Cooke dreaded the annual report on worker accidents at military bases across the country. Every year, his 2,000-person base was included in the Worst 100 as one of the nation's most dangerous places to work.

"I was really embarrassed," Mr. Cooke said. "Every time those figures came out, I wanted to stick my head in the sand."

Instead, he stuck his hand up for a pilot safety program run by Washington Safety, much to the chagrin of his commanding officer.

In 2002, the company's safety gurus swarmed the base, picking apart every job - from welding to lifting an aircraft with a crane to sweeping the floors.

The gurus wrote job manuals for every task, said Mr. Cooke, detailing the potential hazards and backing up the written word with a requirement that supervisors and workers regularly review that manual before starting a job.

Their work helped Mr. Cooke cut the number of workplace accidents by almost 40 percent in 2002. Last year, the base had 74 workplace accidents, almost half as many as the 140 it had in 2000.

"I'm trying to change the way we've been doing business here for the past 25 or 30 years, and that's not easy," Mr. Cooke said. "Is this a pain in the butt? Yes. Is a supervisor going to think before they send someone out to do something? Oh, hell yes. They had to do paperwork."

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (706) 828-3904 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.

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Washington Safety Management Solutions started out as a cadre of 140 nuclear safety experts working at Savannah River Site. The Aiken-based spinoff company, formed in 1997, now employs more than 500 people worldwide.Source: Washington Group International