The Buffalo News

West Valley halts work after three safety lapses

No radiation escaped into the environment

News Staff Reporter

Major work at the West Valley Demonstration Project has been suspended following three safety lapses in 15 days at the former nuclear waste reprocessing center in Cattaraugus County.

There was no radiation release into the environment in any of the incidents, officials said. But in one of the lapses, two workers were exposed to greater doses of radiation than called for under guidelines established by the site contractor, West Valley Nuclear Services Co.

"We looked at three incidents that were outside the norm," West Valley spokesman Terry Dunford said Thursday. "We made a decision to stop work and examine why those things occurred."

In the most serious incident, which happened Jan. 19, two workers who were attempting to remove debris from a contaminated building received doses above West Valley Nuclear Service's self-imposed limit of 100 millirems a day.

The exposed workers received dosages of 315 and 169 millirems, according to the incident report.

The average American absorbs 360 millirems of radiation a year, according to an Army Corps of Engineers fact sheet. Some of that exposure is from naturally occurring background radiation, some of it from medical procedures like X-rays. A dental X-ray, for example, typically produces about 150 millirems.

In the other two instances, cutting operations in the same building, which were being conducted by remote-operated robotic arms, briefly ignited some wood chips on the floor in one incident, and a nylon sling in the other.

Those accidents happened on Jan. 4 and Jan. 10. Major work at the site was stopped shortly after the Jan. 19 incident. A 56-page report into that incident, conducted by outside analysts, blamed managers for failing to limit the scope of work, and for not implementing controls designed to minimize worker exposure.

The report stressed that the incident was caused by a failure to follow procedures, and said there were no "programmatic shortcomings."

But the chief steward for a union representing one of the overexposed workers said he has warned management that a push by the contractor and its overseer, the federal Department of Energy, to speed up work was putting the site's historically solid safety record at risk.

"We do believe the schedule has affected the safety practices," said Peter B. Cooney of Local 2401 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Cooney, who has worked at West Valley for 22 years, added, "The vast majority of people here believe that - other than management people."

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which has been a partner with the Department of Energy in the cleanup of the old reprocessing site, has repeatedly voiced its concern about the acceleration of work there.

"There's a need for more deliberate actions on site to continue the waste cleanup in a very safe way," said NYSERDA President Peter R. Smith. "There's a lot of things that have to be done on the site, and we shouldn't be driven by artificial deadlines."

Cooney said he believed all three incidents, which happened during the dismantling of a building used to solidify radioactive liquid waste, would likely not have occurred if workers weren't feeling rushed.

The first fire would not have occurred, he said, had there been time to clean the floor. As for the second one, "had they been able to take the time, they would have noticed the sling there and moved it."

The worker overexposure occurred because the radiation level of the container being used to remove the debris wasn't measured - as it should have been - before it was brought into the proximity of the workers, he said.

"To most of us, it's an indication of losing a little bit of the great control we've had all these years," he said. "Most of the principles and policies that have produced the great safety record we have, they do tend to slow the work down. So you have to compromise some of these things to meet some of these schedules."

T.J. Jackson, the Department of Energy's director at the site, said deadline pressure shouldn't influence safety procedures. But he said the incidents prompted a thorough internal review.

"We saw some behaviors here that didn't fit," he said. "We thought it would be a good time to stand down and . . . reinforce the safety behaviors that we have come to expect from this work force."

Dunford said West Valley Nuclear Services Co. is also reinforcing a policy promising workers they won't be retaliated against if they come forward to report conditions they feel could compromise site safety. "There are no secrets here," he said.

There was no word on when work will resume.