Fernald workers' safety threatened

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Radiation contamination. Sabotage. Missing and misplaced uranium. These are not make-believe scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie. They are among the real-life incidents that have occurred at the Fernald nuclear cleanup site since Jan. 1, 1993.

While U.S. Department of Energy officials say they are working to improve safety at the site, federal reports and other documents obtained by The Enquirer reveal a pattern of life-threatening mistakes by the company hired to clean up the former uranium processing plant.

Internal reports prepared by the cleanup contractor - Fluor Daniel of Irvine, Calif., and its subsidiary, Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO) - reveal that numerous safety rules and procedures were being overlooked or didn't exist. The documents also say there is a shortage of trained safety analysts at the site.

A six-month Enquirer investigation into Fernald has revealed more than 1,000 serious safety-related problems since Jan. 1, 1993, when FERMCO began work at the site. These include:

Seven ''criticality'' incidents, where drums of radioactive waste were stored too closely together, were caused by ''management problems'' or ''personnel error.'' Energy Department officials say the incidents could have led to explosions of nuclear material.

Almost 80 cases of workers being exposed to radiation between Jan. 8, 1993 and Oct. 10, 1995.

Fernald workers - including several handling nuclear materials - were found high on cocaine or marijuana or drunk on alcohol, but later allowed to return to work if they promised to attend substance abuse classes.

Intentional sabotage of electrical circuit breakers that could have resulted in explosions or the spread of radiation. The incidents led to FBI investigations.

Someone purposely hiding surgical gloves filled with radioactive material in a personnel radiation monitor where it endangered other workers.

Repeated failure of radiation alarms - designed to warn workers of possible exposure - due to power outages or dead batteries.

Missing or misplaced containers of uranium.

Radioactive material being shipped off-site in mislabeled drums that, in at least one case, resulted in a man being exposed to radiation.

Numerous cases of ''counterfeit'' or substandard bolts being used to hold together radioactive-containment equipment, cranes and lifts.

''Both management and line workers come to work daily fearing that they may be carried out of here with radiation poisoning or, worse yet, that a catastrophic incident could kill thousands of their fellow workers and area residents because of some stupid mistake,'' said one FERMCO senior management official who asked for anonymity, saying he would be fired if identified.

That fear is echoed by others who work at the 1,050-acre site 18 miles northwest of downtown Cincinnati.

''A couple of my buddies were contaminated last year when they were working on installing some new (pump) lines, because their bosses told them the old lines had been flushed and they hadn't been,'' one FERMCO worker said, also requesting anonymity. ''Something bad happens here pretty regularly.''

Energy Department officials, including Fernald Area Director Jack Craig, acknowledge that the site's safety record was dismal under FERMCO for the first two years (1993-94), but ''improvements are being made.

''I would certainly not characterize our safety record right now as excellent, but it is improving and we are working with FERMCO officials to fix the problems that currently exist,'' Mr. Craig said. ''We've instituted many programs and changes to deal with these problems.''

Mr. Craig also conceded that part of the safety problems at Fernald could be chalked up to Fluor Daniel - FERMCO being relative newcomers to the nuclear cleanup business.

Rick Maslin, Fluor's director of communications, said that while there have been some serious safety problems at Fernald, ''We feel we have a very good safety record there. And if you compare that record to other (nuclear cleanup) sites, I think you'll find we have one of the best safety programs in the nation.''

FERMCO President Don Ofte touted the safety record at Fernald, which includes about 4 million worker - hours without an employee being injured seriously enough to miss a work day. FERMCO has averaged 1.96 work days lost for every 200,000 employee - hours worked at the plant. That compares to 3.8 days for every 200,000 worker - hours at Energy Department sites nationwide. However, Mr. Ofte acknowledged the statistics on safe work hours do not take into account the 1,000 serious incidents reported to the Energy Department. ''They're called near misses, and we urge our people to overreport because we want to find out about these things.''

Energy Department records obtained by The Enquirer reveal that most of the safety violations and problems that have occurred at Fernald since Jan. 1, 1993 have been identified by the government as the fault of FERMCO management.

According to the records, those management problems include failure to adequately train workers, failure to properly maintain safety equipment and ignoring or failing to follow Energy Department rules to prevent explosions or radiation contamination.

But while Fluor Daniel - FERMCO officials say they work incessantly to keep Fernald safe for workers, their reports reveal serious safety problems.

For example, in November 1995, Fluor Daniel - FERMCO prepared a blue-ribbon committee report after reviewing work and procedures at Fernald, including that of the company's Safety Analysis Group, which oversees safety procedures at the site.

According to a report of that committee obtained by The Enquirer:

''The Safety Analysis Group operates as a group of independent individuals without effective communication among themselves, other departments or projects, or the external environment. Insufficient effort is being expended to seek lessons learned from others, either internal or external. There is a shortage of staff with broad experience in safety analysis work.

''The Safety Analysis Group's procedures may be inadequate to cover all aspects of the current work, and there appears to be a lack of consistent approach to performing safety analysis.''

Lee Tashjian Jr., Fluor Daniel's vice president of corporate relations, declined to comment on the problems identified in his company's report. Mr. Ofte also declined to comment about the report's findings.

Mr. Craig said he was ''concerned'' about the report and was working to improve safety conditions at Fernald. Repeated requests by The Enquirer to interview Fluor Chairman and CEO Les McCraw were denied.

Fluor Daniel, an international construction and design company, was awarded the $2.2 billion government contract to clean up Fernald in December 1992. It marked the first, site-wide nuclear cleanup contract the company has received since it entered the field.

Fluor Daniel created a subsidiary, FERMCO (Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co.), to perform the cleanup.

Fluor Daniel had won an earlier Energy Department contract to clean up material at the government's Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, but that project was postponed indefinitely in 1993 because of a change in priorities by Energy Department officials.

Life-threatening incidents

Any safety violation on a nuclear cleanup site ''is one violation too many'' and could result in death not only for the violator, but coworkers and possibly area residents as well, said Thomas Grumbly, the Energy Department's Acting Undersecretary and former Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management, during a Nov. 27, 1995 telephone interview with The Enquirer.

Mr. Craig said nuclear site safety ''should be the No. 1 priority of everyone working there. The margin for error is very small. We consider every safety-related incident a serious one.'' Repeated requests to interview Energy Department Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary and Mr. Grumbly during the past three weeks were denied.

While acknowledging the impact any safety problem can have on a nuclear site, Energy Department officials, including Mr. Craig, say incidents of criticality and radiation contamination are feared the most because of the immediate threat to human life.

A review of the more than 1,000 incidents at Fernald detailed in Energy Department reports, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigation records and FERMCO internal documents, showed 78 contamination incidents have occurred at the site since Jan. 8, 1993.

Criticality incidents arise when storage drums containing radioactive waste are placed too closely together, said Gary Stegner, the Energy Department's Fernald spokesman.

Despite being stored in protective containers, some radiation always will escape. If too many sources of that radiation are close to each other, a nuclear chain reaction can occur, possibly resulting in an explosion, according to Mr. Craig and Mr. Stegner.

Seven times between Sept. 22, 1993 and June 13, 1995, members of the Energy Department's Nuclear Criticality Safety Team reported criticality incidents at Fernald. The most recent incident occurred when approximately 40 55-gallon drums were moved to Building 77 and stored in a configuration that violated posted safety rules.

Another incident occurred Oct. 7, 1994, when FERMCO workers placed other drums filled with low-level waste between drums containing ''enriched - restricted'' nuclear material. Drums also were placed too closely to the area's radiation detection alarm, rendering it inoperable, according to an Energy Department report.

Criticality incidents continued to occur despite repeated warnings and violation notices issued by the Energy Department after every incident, beginning with the first one on Sept. 22, 1993.

Workers contaminated

Radiation contamination of workers has been, and continues to be, a major concern, Fluor Daniel - FERMCO and Energy Department officials agree.

While government investigators determined that most of the incidents were the result of ''management problems,'' the workers themselves sometimes were at fault.

In an Oct. 10, 1995 incident, an employee of a subcontractor was splashed with radioactive ''green salt'' (uranium tetra-fluoride) after unzipping her protective clothing because she was uncomfortable.

The woman zipped up her clothing and delayed reporting the incident for more than an hour, despite Energy Department rules that require immediate notification.

After setting off the radiation detectors that all employees are required to use when leaving a ''hot'' site, the woman was treated for what was described in the report as an ''acute and excessive'' dose of radiation. She later was fired for violating the safety rules.

Her medical condition - like that of every person who received some level of contamination at Fernald - was not disclosed in the government reports. The government does not require such information in the reports. Medical information about employees does not have to be disclosed under the federal Freedom of Information Act, and therefore was not available to The Enquirer.

On March 30, 1993, another worker, despite wearing protective clothing, contaminated his hair with radioactive dirt while working under a tank to repair a leak. The worker apparently inadvertently brushed his head against the contaminated tank.

On several occasions, workers were contaminated because they were not made to wear protective clothing while working at known radioactive sites.

For example, on Aug. 4, 1995, a worker who was told to paint areas of the boiler plant and Building 12 stepped in some wet paint. The sticky paint allowed radioactive dust to build up on the soles of his boots. He told Energy Department investigators that FERMCO officials never warned him of the dangers, according to the reports.

In another case, on March 1, 1993, a subcontractor worker welding outside Plant 9 had his boots and coveralls contaminated, despite wearing protective clothing over them, because he was working on his hands and knees in radioactive soil.

Energy Department records also blame FERMCO management for the contamination of a worker on Dec. 7, 1994. Employees digging a trench with a backhoe uncovered a sealed 5-gallon drum. One worker was directed to open the drum with a shovel. It was later determined the drum and its contents were radioactive.

Some contamination incidents remain a mystery.

On March 5, 1993, a worker's clothes were contaminated with radiation after he said he simply spread salt on icy walkways around buildings that were considered non-contaminated areas.

Other safety problems

Energy Department and FERMCO records also reveal hundreds of other safety-related incidents at Fernald.

Among the most serious, according to the records, were at least three incidents of missing or misplaced uranium or deadly hydrofluoric gas.

The most recent occurred May 26, 1995, when a worker discovered canisters of hydrofluoric gas in a trash area near Building 71. FERMCO officials said they did not know how the canisters got there.

Other incidents include a missing container of 167 pounds of slightly enriched uranium. Workers discovered the uranium missing on Sept. 30, 1994. The container was found two months later in another building.

Fernald also has had incidents of sabotage that were so serious, the Energy Department's Mr. Craig said, that the FBI became involved.

FBI agents were called to the site on Dec. 13 and 16, 1994, when workers found some circuit breakers that had been purposely disabled or damaged. The circuit breakers are designed to prevent electrical overloads that could lead to explosions, fires or the spread of radioactive contamination.

''This was obviously sabotage,'' Mr. Craig said. ''Those incidents posed very serious problems for every worker here. The FBI was called, but unfortunately they were not able to find the person or people responsible. I really don't know if the people who did it are still working here or not. The incidents did stop after the FBI came a second time.''

Another suspected case of sabotage occurred Aug. 12, 1994, when someone put surgical gloves filled with radioactive material inside the arm wells of a Personnel Contamination Monitor that workers were required to use. The monitor's alarm went off when a man used it. The man was not contaminated, but a check of the machine found the surgical gloves. Investigators never found the culprit.

Energy Department records reveal another serious and continuing safety problem: Fernald employees found high on cocaine or marijuana, or drunk, while working with or around nuclear material.

Since Jan. 1, 1993, there have been 38 documented reports of workers caught on site impaired by drugs or alcohol. Investigators conducted drug tests to prove their cases.

In almost every case, the workers were told of a FERMCO policy where they either could keep their jobs by agreeing to attend a substance abuse program, or be fired. Most chose to keep their jobs and were allowed to return to work. The Energy Department's policy is to let FERMCO discipline its employees.

Some workers were repeat offenders and still were allowed to keep their jobs. For example, on June 2, 1995, a worker was caught high on cocaine a second time. He still was attending a substance abuse program for his first violation, so FERMCO officials merely increased the length of time he would be subjected to unannounced drug testing.

Another potentially life-threatening situation that Energy Department and FERMCO investigators have uncovered is thousands of ''counterfeit'' or substandard fasteners and bolts being used to hold together tanks containing radioactive materials, cranes, lifts, and other structures.

Energy Department investigators say such bolts don't meet the government's stringent design specifications, and are brought on-site by contractors or subcontractors.

A review of Energy Department records did not reveal any investigation that led to criminal or civil penalties against a contractor or subcontractor for supplying inferior bolts.

But records show Energy Department inspectors discovered such bolts in use on five occasions in 1995: March 24, May 4, June 28, Aug. 15 and Oct. 3.

Mr. Craig said inspectors ''are working continuously to detect counterfeit materials because of the serious consequences'' if they should fail or break. He also said that when counterfeit bolts or materials are found, ''we have them removed immediately.''

FERMCO spokesman Jack Hoopes said the company takes the problem of counterfeit materials ''very seriously'' and works with the Energy Department to try to halt their use.

Human error and stupidity exist at a nuclear site just as at any other business, said Mr. Craig. ''It's just a lot more serious when those problems arise here. We are working to minimize the problems and we have seen some success. However, we need to do more.''

Published Feb. 12, 1996.