DOE Suffers From Lack of “Safety Culture”

March 23, 2000

DOE Suffers From Lack of “Safety Culture”

Agency Should Sever Ties With Controversial British Company,
Public Citizen Says

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) suffers from the same lack of “safety culture” that has been documented at controversial contractor British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL), and the agency promotion of radioactive recycling is an example of this glaring problem, Public Citizen said today.

The agency should launch a thorough investigation to determine how much radioactive material has entered the marketplace, should halt all releases of radioactive waste into the marketplace, and should end its contracts with BNFL, Public Citizen said. Public Citizen has joined several other groups in signing a petition calling for DOE to sever its contracts with the company.

Although DOE last month set up a task force to review agency policies regarding the recycling of radioactive waste, the poor performance of officials at its first meeting this week does not inspire confidence in the process, said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project.

“There is no indication that the task force will operate openly or even honestly consider the option of stopping radioactive recycling,” Hauter said. “They were contemptuous of our concerns and clearly were not taking the issue seriously. One DOE official even commented during the public meeting, that it would be difficult to convince DOE staff to hold public task force meetings in the future.”

“More ominous,” Hauter said, “was the admission by members of the task force that it would be too labor-intensive to collect basic data on the release of radioactive materials before 1990, including such pertinent information as how much waste has been released, where it has been released and how radioactive it is.”

The DOE has been allowing radioactive waste to be recycled since the 1950s. In response to concerns about waste being used to manufacture common household products, DOE Secretary Bill Richardson in January announced that the agency would temporarily halt the release of some highly contaminated radioactive waste for recycling.

But the effort fell far short of protecting the public, Hauter said at the time, because it related only to volumetrically contaminated waste. Surface-contaminated waste is still being recycled. (Volumetrically contaminated waste is contaminated throughout by radioactive particles, the way sugar is distributed throughout a cake. The waste includes such things as nickel from DOE’s atomic bomb-making factories and steel from nuclear power plants. Surface-contaminated waste is contaminated only on the surface — for instance, pipes or wires that have been exposed to radiation.)

Hauter also called Thursday for DOE to end its contract with BNFL, which has been hired to recycle contaminated metal at a site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

BNFL, part of the nuclear power and weapons agency of the British government, has admitted to falsifying safety data for a Japanese customer concerning the manufacture of fuel made of mixed oxides (Mox) of uranium and plutonium. BNFL’s investigation of the records falsification, which occurred between 1996 and 1999 in 22 shipments, was narrow and understated the extent of the problems, a government agency subsequently found.

BNFL has experienced similar problems in the U.S. The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy workers have documented BNFL’s misrepresentation of their experience in recycling radioactive metals and their failure to disclose management and safety deficiencies of its recycling subsidiary Manufacturing Science Corporation.

Also, BNFL has one of the worst environmental records in the United Kingdom (UK), according to the Environmental Agency of England and Wales (UK). At BNFL’s Sellafield site, the sediments at the end of its nuclear waste discharge pipe are so radioactive that according to European Commission standards they should be classified as nuclear waste requiring storage at a qualified repository. BNFL was fined 20,000 pounds in April 1997 for violating Britain’s Radioactive Substances act.

“The DOE is incapable of supervising contractors charged with cleaning up the environmental disaster festering at the nation’s weapons facilities,” Hauter said. “The same lack of a ‘safety culture,’ which has contributed to the serious safety deficiencies and lack of accountability at BNFL are present at the DOE.”