Thursday, July 13, 2000
By BRIAN HANSEN
The U.S. Department of Energy this week levied $160,000 in safety-related penalties against the Kaiser-Hill Company, the private contractor carrying out the $4 billion contract to clean up and shut down the now-mothballed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.
The fines stemmed from two separate sets of incidents that occurred in recent months at the former bomb factory, both of which the DOE said illustrated Kaiser-Hill's "lack of focus on improving environment, safety, health, safeguards, or security performance" at the site.
"The health and safety of Rocky Flats employees is our first priority," said Barbara Mazurowski, manager of the DOE's Rocky Flats Field Office. "Our closure contract gives us the mechanism to take action before actual safety boundaries are compromised."
Under the terms of the Rocky Flats closure contract, the DOE has the authority to fine Kaiser-Hill up to $250,000 for safety-related violations that occur over the course of the long-term decommissioning operation. The incidents for which Kaiser-Hill was fined this week were classified as "category III" violations -- the least severe of the three penalty levels stipulated in the Rocky Flats closure contract.
Kaiser-Hill President and CEO Bob Card said the penalties would motivate the company to do better.
"Kaiser-Hill agreed to an unprecedented penalty structure in the new contract to help motivate us to achieve best-in-class safety across the board," Card said. "We welcome this additional incentive and regret that our performance required application in this case.
"We are committed to correct these deficiencies to ensure a safe environment for our workers," Card added.
The first of the two distinct penalties assessed against Kaiser-Hill this week was levied as a result of at least 13 incidents involving the improper handling and movement of materials throughout the Rocky Flats facility between Feb. 1 and June 5.
The DOE, in a June 30 memorandum, drew a number of conclusions after reviewing the 13 incidents. The DOE concluded that:
• The handling violations occurred in a number of different areas of the Rocky Flats site.
• The violations resulted in several "near misses" in worker injuries.
• The violations resulted in the damaging and/or destroying of containers of low-level radioactive waste.
• The violations resulted in the damaging and/or destroying of equipment and materials.
• The violations indicated a "general lack of discipline/formality of material movement operations" on the part of Kaiser-Hill.
The DOE also noted that Kaiser-Hill should have taken "more aggressive actions" to curb the materials-handling problems when they were first pointed out to the company last winter.
Initially, the DOE set the penalty for the materials-handling problems at $125,000. However, the DOE reduced the fine to $100,000 after considering Kaiser-Hill's efforts to improve its operating and training procedures.
The second fine assessed against the company this week pertained to a malfunctioning ventilation system in Rocky Flats Building 371, where all of the plant's plutonium and other special nuclear materials are currently being consolidated.
According to the DOE, Kaiser-Hill failed to take appropriate action to rectify "upsets" in the building's ventilation system, which malfunctioned several times between Feb. 8 and Feb. 29.
On Feb. 29, for example, an area of building 371 was contaminated with radiation in excess of 40,000 disintegrations per minute after Kaiser-Hill workers attempted to restore a filter in the building's ventilation system. While no radiation was released to the environment as a result of the incident, operations in the building had to be suspended while the area was decontaminated.
The DOE estimated that it cost $60,000 in labor to recover from the Feb. 29 event, which the government said resulted in the "unnecessary" exposure of workers to radioactivity and the generation of additional radioactive wastes.
Another ventilation-related incident occurred in Building 371 on Feb. 8, the DOE noted. That incident, which was caused by a Kaiser-Hill electrician performing maintenance on a fan system, potentially exposed six workers to airborne radioactivity, according to a June 30 DOE report. The report notes that while nasal smears indicated that the workers were not contaminated, Kaiser-Hill supervisors were not notified of the problem until sometime after it occurred.
Initially, the DOE determined that the ventilation problems warranted a $100,000 penalty. However, after considering a number of "mitigation factors" -- such as the fact that equipment failure contributed to the Feb. 29 incident, and that Kaiser-Hill did make efforts to evacuate workers from the contaminated area -- the DOE reduced the fine to $60,000.
"As the health and safety of our workers in my first priority, ensuring proper operation of ventilation systems in all nuclear facilities need to continue to be a high priority of Kaiser-Hill," wrote Mazurowski in the DOE's report. "Additionally, as operations and nuclear materials are consolidated in Building 371, it is extremely important that we establish a 'best-in-class' operational expectation of that facility."
The fines levied against Kaiser-Hill this week will be taken out of the company's next conditional incentive fee payment. The fines will also result in a downward adjustment of the total adjusted fee that the company will collect when the contract is completed.