DOE announces investigation into diffusion plant operations

By Tom Corrigan -

In a letter sent Thursday to Fluor-BWXT (FBP) Program Manager Bobby Smith, the Office of Enforcement of the federal Department of Energy announced it is investigating FBP’s radiation protection program.

While the Times gained confirmation of the investigation, a DOE spokesperson stated as the investigation is ongoing, not much information on that investigation can be made public at this time.

“Radiation protection is something that we take very seriously for all of our employees, the public and environment. We are working with the DOE assessment team to ensure that we comply with all federal regulations,” FBP spokesman Jack Williams wrote in an email to the Times.

The letter to Smith, which was in turn forwarded by a private party to the Daily Times, gives no specific reason for the investigation. The letter does state the investigation will include an on-site visit, interviews with contractor personnel and a request for documents to support the investigation.

FBP is the private contractor hired by DOE to oversee the decontamination and demolition of the defunct Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. FBP and DOE’s activities at the plant are under heavy public criticism at least partly due to radioactive contamination allegedly found at a now closed middle school in Piketon. A study completed by an out-of-state university contends the Portsmouth plant is the only logical local source of that contamination. Residents near the plant have launched two class-action lawsuits over the alleged off-site contamination.

“Under the Major Fraud Act (MFA) … this investigation may be a proceeding commenced by the United States that relates to a violation of, or the failure to comply with, a Federal regulation,” DOE’s letter to FBP reads in part.

The letter adds the government retains the right to receive reimbursement of any costs related to the ongoing investigation.

The letter is signed by Kevin L. Dressman, director of the Office of Enforcement. A call to Dressman’s office requesting further comment was redirected to DOE.

Generalized information provided by DOE spells out the regulations governing investigations by the Office of Enforcement. One section of DOE’s “Safety and Security Enforcement Process Overview” is labeled “Decision to Investigate.”

The section reads in part, that a decision to investigate “is based on an evaluation of the safety and/or security significance associated with a particular noncompliance.” DOE’s overview goes on to say, “The Office of Enforcement generally investigates only non-compliances with substantially greater safety or security significance than the general population of reported non-compliances. The judgment of significance considers the safety or security significance and associated programmatic breakdowns. “

DOE’s overview goes on to explain numerous circumstances under which an investigation might take place:

“For worker safety and health non-compliances, the determination of safety significance is based on established requirements for identifying hazards and implementing protective measures and controls for those hazards, as embodied in DOE’s worker safety and health regulation: the extent or severity, or both, of an injury or illness that actually occurred, or the potential that it could occur; the extent to which hazards were not adequately identified or evaluated; the extent to which protective measures or hazard controls were violated, defeated, or improperly established; the extent to which workers were not trained or otherwise equipped to perform work safely.”

The overview continues:

“For nuclear safety non-compliances, the determination of safety significance is based on the ‘defense-in-depth’ approach to nuclear safety embodied in DOE’s nuclear safety regulations: the extent or severity, or both, of an actual adverse nuclear safety event or condition, or the potential that it could occur; the extent to which the safety barriers intended to prevent an abnormal or accident condition have been violated, defeated, or improperly established; the extent to which mitigating safety features intended to protect workers or the public in an abnormal or accident condition have been violated, defeated, or improperly established.”

Possibly notably, the overview mentions “identification of significant radioactive material/contamination off site” as a possible reason for launching an investigation. In any instance, the law authorizes DOE to pursue various remedies for any proven violations.

In terms of penalties, the rules call for possible reduction of contract fees or other payments. DOE is allowed to seek either a reduction in fees and payments or it may pursue other civil penalties, but not both.

According to the DOE document, a decision to investigate must happen within 60 calendars days from the date of the event or discovery of the condition in question. Officials have 150 days from the date of decision to investigate to complete any investigation.

The DOE overview is 57 PDF pages in length and what is presented here is not intended as a complete summary of that document.

The Daily Times only recently received a number of reports of some type of problems or release at what is called the DUF6 cylinder transfer station associated with the Portsmouth plant. Unconfirmed reports referred to a “breach of undetermined origin.”

In simplistic terms, DUF6 is one of the many hazardous materials remaining at the site, byproducts of its operating days. FBP is not in charge of the handling of DUF6 containers. A separate contractor, Mid-American Services, completes operations related to DUF6. A Mid-American spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny any recent incident or release of hazardous materials. The spokesperson told the Times she would investigate what if anything happened with regards the DUF6 at the plant site but did not provide any further information by deadline for this issue.

As FBP does not handle DUF6 at the Portsmouth site, it seems highly unlikely any incident involving that material is the reason for the Office of Enforcement investigation. The Daily Times will continue to follow this story.

By Tom Corrigan

Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370- 0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.

Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370- 0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.