Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Fernald manager fined again

Third in 10 months for nuclear contractor

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CROSBY TWP. - Fluor Fernald has been fined $40,000 by the federal government for a nuclear safety violation at Fernald, the former uranium enrichment plant 18 miles north of Cincinnati.

It is the third financial penalty - totaling more than $250,000 - against Fluor for safety violations at the site in 10 months. In addition, two independent safety reviews in the past few months have been critical of the "safety culture" at the site, noting five recent near-miss accidents that could have resulted in worker death or environmental contamination.

Fluor Fernald is a subsidiary of Fluor Daniel, the construction giant managing the $4.4 billion cleanup of radioactive waste at the site for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The latest fine stems from Fluor neglecting to post "High Radiation Area" signs outside of a building, a requirement under federal law. The violation went unnoticed and uncorrected for more than a year, until a DOE employee reported the problem to Fluor in March.

The mistake could have cost Fluor a much larger civil penalty. Instead, the DOE entered into a "consent order" with Fluor that requires the $40,000 payment.

"The payment to be provided by Fluor Fernald has been significantly reduced from what could have been proposed through the formal enforcement process," says the consent order, signed by Stephen M. Sohinki, director of the Office of Price-Anderson Enforcement, an arm of the DOE. "In choosing to issue this consent order, I have exercised significant latitude."

Fluor officials said no workers were exposed to radiation because of the oversight.

"We examined the area and there were no cigarette butts or other things that would indicate that people were hanging out there," said Dan Thiel, a radiological control manager for Fluor. "This is in a very out-of-the-way type of place, and there is no reason for anyone to be there."

Thiel also said the company checked work orders to make sure there was no record of employees in the area. A DOE spokesman added that the fence was inspected to make sure no one had climbed over it.

But that's not good enough for Gene Branham, president of the Fernald Atomic Trades and Labor Council.

"We think, in all likelihood, there were employees who were radiologically exposed," Branham said. "But without constant monitoring, there is no way to (know)."

The area that wasn't properly marked houses a piece of machinery that intentionally shoots doses of radiation onto employee badges. Those badges are then tested to make sure they are reading radiation levels properly, as a quality-control measure. Employees are required to wear the badges, which track possible exposure to radiation.

The machine operated more than 113 hours in the past year; the area is dangerous only when the machine is in operation.

The constant monitoring that Branham said is necessary never happened, Thiel admitted.

"There was a technician there the majority of the time the machine was operational," Thiel said. "But not every minute."

Fluor has been cited over the past few months for lack of safety.

In December, the DOE deferred $118,000 from Fluor's project fee for safety violations.

In addition, $36,000 was permanently withheld - also relating to safety violations. In July, DOE deferred another $100,000 out of a potential $500,000 bonus, citing repeated safety problems and near-miss accidents that occurred from April through June.

One month later, the safety reports came out.

A federal watchdog agency created by Congress said in an Aug. 7 report that while Fluor managers stress safety, supervisors and workers in the field believe that safety takes a back seat to getting the job done on time. Fluor stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars if it completes the cleanup by the 2006 deadline.

The safety board's report requires Fluor officials to appear before them in Washington to outline how they plan to improve safety at the site.

Branham said the latest incident is similar to a problem in 2000 that cost Fluor a $55,000 fine. In that case, signs warning of airborne radiation should have been posted around the waste pits project at the site, in an area where workers changed clothing.

The process of changing clothes stirred up radioactive dust, but workers were not made aware of the danger.

In that case, Fluor admitted to violating nuclear safety codes.

"We see a pattern and we have a genuine concern that it just a matter of time, unless things are corrected, until we have an incident or accident where someone is going to get hurt," Branham said.



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