Safety issues revealed at nuclear facility
Contractors used substandard materials
WASHINGTON - Contractors at the Savannah River Site - one of the country's major nuclear-weapons complexes - repeatedly procured dangerous construction materials and components that failed to meet federal safety standards, according to a recently completed internal government probe.
One of the substandard materials revealed at the Savannah River Site on the South Carolina-Georgia border "could have resulted in a spill of up to 15,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste," the inspector general of the U.S. Energy Department found.
The five-month investigation also disclosed the purchase of 9,500 tons of substandard reinforcing steel at the SRS site near Aiken.

The faulty steel was discovered after a piece of it broke during construction of a facility that will convert spent weapons plutonium and uranium into mixed-oxide - or MOX - fuel for civilian reactors.

Replacement of 14 tons of the substandard "rebar" - the reinforcing steel - that had already been installed cost $680,000 and caused new delays in completing the $4.8 billion MOX facility, the investigation disclosed.

Among other questionable components identified in the probe were piping, steel plates, an unusable $12 million "glovebox" (used to handle contaminated materials), furnace module doors and robots used to eliminate human exposure to radiological and chemical materials.

In an April 23 memo to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Inspector General Gregory Friedman said contractors and subcontractors that build, supply and install equipment at SRS facilities ignored safety regulations developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

"We identified multiple instances in which critical components did not meet required quality and safety standards," Friedman wrote to Chu.

The Savannah River Site produced tritium, plutonium-239 and other materials used to make nuclear weapons from 1954 to 1991, when the United States stopped making atomic bombs with the end of the Cold War.

Scientists and technicians at the SRS site, one of several massive nuclear complexes around the country, still replenish tritium needed to maintain the United States' existing nuclear weapons.

SRS is a large regional employer with about 10,000 workers, down from its peak of 25,000 in 1992.

Many employees are engaged in a huge environmental cleanup effort to mediate decades of toxic nuclear waste production.

President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic-stimulus plan has $1.6 billion to accelerate the SRS cleanup, and hundreds of new workers already have been hired with the money.

The DOE inspector general's probe found instances of hiring SRS subcontractors who sold standard commercial materials instead of the required military-grade components subjected to tougher testing during production under higher standards.
One of the commercial subcontractors sold goods through retail catalogues.
While the investigation focused on contractors and subcontractors, it said the Energy Department failed to adequately supervise them and demand that they meet established safety standards.

"The Department did not provide adequate oversight of the prime contractors' quality-assurance programs at Savannah River," the report found. "Particularly, the Department did not adequately establish and implement processes to detect and/or prevent quality problems."

Friedman's investigators, who were on-site at SRS from Sept. 30, 2008, until April 8, examined a representative sample of 10 procurements - government purchases - and found safety problems with each of them.

Officials with the National Nuclear Security Administration, an Energy Department agency responsible for maintaining and securing the nation's nuclear weapons, disputed the findings.

"NNSA agrees with the recommendations presented in the report but does not agree with the stated conclusions concerning the safety of the facilities, related cost impacts or with the tone of the report," wrote William Ostendorff, its principal deputy administrator.
Ostendorff said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had done a more extensive probe of safety issues at the MOX facility - one of three examined by the inspector general - and had concluded that the problems were "violations of low significance."

Some environmentalists and other critics cast the NRC as a weak regulator plagued by cozy relationships with the power utilities that own and operate the civilian nuclear reactors it is charged with licensing and overseeing.

Heads of the Energy Department's Office of Environmental Management, in charge of waste cleanup at SRS and other nuclear complexes, didn't dispute the inspector general's findings.

"The issues identified in this report represent a failure of contractors and subcontractors to properly implement existing requirements and policies," wrote Ines Triay, acting assistant secretary for environmental management.

"Environmental Management agrees that current practices can and should be enhanced to provide greater federal and contractor oversight," Triay wrote.
Rosen covers Washington for McClatchy Newspapers in South Carolina.