Former Department of Energy advisor Bob Alvarez worked at DOE when workers were exposed to silica at Yucca Mountain. Alvarez talks with host Steve Curwood about why DOE's contracting system is outdated, and how its worker safety practices would not be tolerated in the private sector, or even other sectors of government.
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
On our program today we’ve been hearing about tunnel workers at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. They say they’re suffering health problems from breathing in silica dust at the nuclear power plant waste repository being constructed there by the Department of Energy.
But this is not the only Energy Department site where workers have been exposed to hazardous materials. At the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in eastern Washington state, men working atop massive tanks of polluted sludge have complained that DOE contractors said no respirators -- even after they complained of noxious odors.
The watchdog group Government Accountability Project says at least 90 of these Hanford workers have sought medical attention for exposure to those vapors during the past two years. Meanwhile, an internal DOE investigation is looking into whether medical charts of some workers were altered at a DOE-funded health clinic to read “non work-related” after they were examined.
Bob Alvarez investigated the Energy Department for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs for five years, and then worked inside DOE as an advisor during both Clinton administrations. Thanks for coming in today.
ALVAREZ: Thank you for having me here.
CURWOOD: Now, you haven’t just been an outsider but, in fact, you worked inside the Department of Energy as an employee. And I guess I ought to ask you, since you were working at the Department of Energy during the time that some of the problems happened at Yucca Mountain regarding silicosis – tell me, how did that happen?
ALVAREZ: Well, I was quite dismayed to learn about what happened very recently because people like myself and several of my colleagues who worked in the Department prided ourselves in trying to turn this agency around, especially with respect to protection of workers. And, in this case, we all failed.
What was going on was that there was tremendous pressure being put on the program in the Department, the office of Radioactive Waste Management, to build a tunnel as quickly as possible. Because there was a lot of concern that a lot of money was just being spent on generating paper and there was nothing real going on at Yucca Mountain. And, as I’ve learned in recent weeks, we created a terrible legacy in doing this because we let contractors have a free reign in terms of getting the job done at the expense of the workers.
CURWOOD: Let me ask you to go to another place. If I went to the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in Washington State, what would I see there?
ALVAREZ: Hanford occupies about 560 square miles in southeastern Washington, and the Columbia River runs through the site. And what you would see if you would go there is a large expanse in the steppe-shrub desert of eastern Washington that has, right now, nine defunct reactors along the river, three or four radiochemical plants that are closed. And then, beneath the ground towards the middle of the site, there are buried 177 what are called high level radioactive waste tanks. These are the tanks that received some of the most dangerous byproducts of the nuclear arms race, from the protection of plutonium, and…
CURWOOD: 177 tanks?
ALVAREZ: Yes, and these are tanks that typically in size would occupy essentially the entire court of an NBA basketball court, and be about 75 feet in height, as a dome.
CURWOOD: What’s in those tanks?
ALVAREZ: What’s in those tanks is a complicated mix of chemicals and radioactivity. They contain nearly every element on the periodic chart, and are quite dangerous both in terms of the radiation that they give off – external penetrating radiation which is quite lethal – as well as the wastes give off a tremendous amount of gasses which are explosive, flammable, toxic, and carcinogenic.
CURWOOD: Now, you say that the Columbia River runs right through this area. How secure are these tanks to keep this water from running into the river?
ALVAREZ: Well, more than a third of the tanks have leaked over a million gallons, and some of these wastes have entered the groundwater that enters the Columbia River.
CURWOOD: In recent months, a number of workers have complained about conditions at the Hanford nuclear reservation, and I gather these are the tanks that some of these workers have been complaining about.
ALVAREZ: That’s correct.
CURWOOD: And I gather that they feel that they haven’t been adequately protected in trying to work with this waste material. What are workers complaining about here?
ALVAREZ: Workers are complaining about breathing in gasses that cause things like – and then are reporting symptoms to the site health care providers that indicate that they are breathing in materials that are causing some sort of injuries. They have been complaining about things like nosebleeds, impaired breathing, skin rashes, headaches, kidney problems – a host of symptoms that you really have to follow up on, because we’re talking about some of the most dangerous materials in the world. And you should be providing the utmost protection. But what’s going on here, I think, is a similar pattern that occurred, unfortunately, at Yucca Mountain – it’s that we have to speed this up, get this job done. And what’s happening is that protection of workers, in my opinion, is being shortchanged.
CURWOOD: Bob, when we were first talking among ourselves about these problems at the Department of Energy sites, somebody raised the question that this is mainly a problem with contractor turnover, that these large, complicated, technical contracts tend to go to the same companies over and over again. But what’s your analysis? Where do you think the links are broken when it comes to workplace safety at the Department of Energy?
ALVAREZ: Well, I think that the contractor turnover is really not the issue here. It’s the outdated Cold War contracting system that the Department of Energy still clings to. Energy Department contractors are the only contractors in the U.S. government who enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being held immune from legal liability for acts of gross negligence and willful misconduct.
CURWOOD: And even somebody working for the Defense Department?
ALVAREZ: No. There are no contractors outside the Energy Department who enjoy such privilege. And so they are virtually immune from criminal acts, and if they are accused of criminal acts the government has to come in and protect them. And so this culture that is embedded in this contract system continues to put production over safety. Now, instead of cranking out nuclear warheads, the job that they’ve imposed upon these contractors is to clean up this mess as fast as possible.
The Department of Energy is also self-regulating in terms of protection of workers. And its regulations are not really, technically, legally binding other than in contract clauses, which can be changed without public knowledge. And compliance with these contract safety requirements has to be paid for by the Energy Department no matter how much they cost. And then violation of these safety contract clauses don’t necessarily mean there are any penalties, because these are “cost plus” contracts. They may reduce their bonuses, but there really are no serious consequences if you compare this to the rest of the world.
In the United States, in terms of the commercial nuclear industry, the nuclear Navy of the Defense Department – there are consequences. I’m unaware of any situation since I’ve been studying the Department, and worked in Congress, and worked in the Department, where the Department of Energy demanded its money back for gross negligence and willful misconduct and acts that involved knowing endangerment of workers.
CURWOOD: Now, some of the companies involved here, these are major firms that also operate in the private sector with strong safety programs for their workers -- companies like Bechtel, Flora Daniel, CH2M Hill. My impression is that these companies wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t have strong worker safety programs. Is there a different standard when these companies are working for the Department of Energy?
ALVAREZ: Absolutely. It’s like stepping into another planet. The rules are suspended in terms of meeting certain requirements, because the department does not have adequate regulation, and does not have legally binding standards to protect these workers.
CURWOOD: So, no rules from the Department of Occupational Health and Safety?
ALVAREZ: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not regulate the workplace in the Department of Energy; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not regulate worker safety in the Energy Department. The Energy Department regulates itself, and it regulates itself through a contract system that literally goes back to World War II where all these responsibilities are bestowed directly on the contractor in a form of an honor system.
CURWOOD: Now, you tell me that…
ALVAREZ: And on top of that, the contractor is basically told that if we see any increases in worker exposures or injuries, we’re going to cut back on your bonuses.
CURWOOD: There are no federal safety laws that are being applied here. So if I were out on the job – say, working at Hanford Nuclear Reservation or the Yucca Mountain – and I go to my supervisor, ask for a safety mask and don’t get one, I have no right to go and complain, say, to OSHA.
ALVAREZ: That’s correct. And if you do, you do it at your own peril because they can find a reason to basically take away your badge and take you out the gate and say “adios.”
CURWOOD: And you say these are “cost plus” contracts – that is, whatever the cost is to the contractor, plus a margin for profit, that’s the way these things work. Tell me, are such comfy contracts common in the federal government?
ALVAREZ: These are very unique to the Department of Energy because of the enormous amount of protection that’s provided to the contractor as it carries out its work, and the lack of accountability of the contractors. I would compare DOE’s contracting system to what the military contracting system looked like shortly after World War II.
CURWOOD: Let’s look ahead now for a moment, Bob. Of course, the mission of the Department of Energy at these sites now is cleanup, and I understand that the desire is to get out of this cleanup business ahead of schedule over this next decade. What do you know about what that might mean for worker safety?
ALVAREZ: Well, first of all, the business of the Department of Energy being primarily clean-up is not exactly correct. The Department of Energy under this administration is now seeking to reconstitute the nuclear weapons production complex in order to make a new generation of nuclear weapons. And that costs a lot of money, of course. And how do you free up money to do that? Well, one way to do that is to save money on the cleanup. And this is what I think is going on.
CURWOOD: How many people work at Department of Energy sites right now, do you think?
ALVAREZ: Well there are over 100,000 -- 100 to 110,000 contractor employees who work at Department of Energy sites. How many of those are involved in dangerous activities, I would say, are perhaps a third.
CURWOOD: What would it take to turn around the situation you’ve described for us, Bob?
ALVAREZ: I think we need a fundamental legislative overhaul of the contracting system. This is a system that really hasn’t changed much since World War II. And while the Defense Department is not necessarily an exemplary model for financial accountability and the like, it does have certain safeguards. I mean, for example, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the contract with Haliburton, with the U.S. Army. And recently, the Defense Department is asking for Haliburton to return 315 million dollars in expenses the felt were not justified. This, to my knowledge and my experience in the Department, has never happened. And because these contract clauses really make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the government to recover money for shabby work, for violating the rules, or just simply waste, fraud, and abuse.
CURWOOD: So optimist/pessimist about this situation, Bob?
ALVAREZ: Well, I think that we can do these jobs safely, we can get them done in a cost effective and responsible manner. But this is a system that’s broken; it can’t be fixed by reforming and tweaking. We need to bring in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to regulate safety of the workplace. We need to bring in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate nuclear safety of these operations. We are not engaged in a life and death struggle with the Soviet Union anymore. And we shouldn’t have a contract system that was designed to do that to carry out our cleanup.
CURWOOD: What are the odds of that happening, Bob?
ALVAREZ: I think they’re very slim at this stage because of the enormous power of these contractors, who find it very convenient to have this business, because it’s quite lucrative and it’s risk-free. So there has to be some sort of countervailing force to this and, unfortunately, changes tend to occur when accidents happen. And I’m hoping that we can come to our senses before those kinds of tragedies occur.
CURWOOD: Bob Alvarez is a former investigator for the Senate Committee on Government Affairs and a former advisor to the Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration. Thanks so much, sir.
ALVAREZ: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Joe Davis, the spokesperson for the Department of Energy, declined our invitation to be interviewed for this story. But he did send us the following statement in response to the allegations made by Mr. Alvarez.
“Mr. Alvarez,” writes Joe Davis, “was a senior policy advisor to former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary. Many of his critical comments have focused on DOE's cleanup activities which he was in charge of for a number of years and, at that time, lacked a focused and coherent strategy to address the cleanup of former DOE sites. I simply chose not to debate former political staff members of a previous administration whose comments bring no added value to DOE's ongoing and new efforts to cleanup our sites.
The Department of Energy is engaged in a smart and comprehensive effort to work with states and regulatory agencies to ensure that we make actual progress in cleaning up former Cold War weapon sites. Our accelerated cleanup plans have resulted in multi-million dollar reduction in government and taxpayer liability, while reducing risks to the environment surrounding our sites.
This accelerated cleanup effort has been endorsed by both Republican and Democratic administrations on the state level. We have specific measures in place to ensure that contractors meet every federal, state and local regulatory requirement, as well as fee structures that allow DOE to assess a contractor’s performance and award them for good work and penalize them for unacceptable work.”
Those words from Joe Davis, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy.
[MUSIC: Howlin’ Wolf “Highway 49” KILLING FLOOR (Magnum – 1996)]
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