WASHINGTON — Contractors at one of the nation's major nuclear weapons complexes repeatedly used substandard construction materials and components that could've caused a major radioactive spill, a recently completed internal government probe has found.
One of the materials used at the Savannah River Site on the South Carolina-Georgia border failed to meet federal safety standards and "could have resulted in a spill of up to 15,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste," the Energy Department's inspector general found.
The inspector general's five-month investigation also found that contractors bought 9,500 tons of substandard steel reinforcing bars for the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.
The faulty steel was discovered after a piece of it broke during the construction of a facility to convert spent nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and uranium into mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel for civilian reactors.
Replacing 14 tons of substandard rebar — the steel bars commonly used to reinforce concrete — that already had been installed cost $680,000 and delayed the completion of the $4.8 billion MOX facility, the investigation found.
Among the other questionable components the probe found were piping, steel plates, an unusable $12 million "glovebox" used to handle radioactive materials, furnace module doors and robots that are used to avoid human exposure to radiological and chemical materials.
In an April 23 memo to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Inspector General Gregory Friedman said that contractors and subcontractors that build, supply and install equipment at the Savannah River facilities ignored safety regulations developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
"We identified multiple instances in which critical components did not meet required quality and safety standards," Friedman wrote to Chu.
The DOE inspector general's probe found instances of hiring Savannah River Site subcontractors who sold standard commercial materials instead of the required military-grade components, which are subjected to tougher testing during production under higher standards. One commercial subcontractor sold goods through retail catalogues.
While the investigation focused on contractors and subcontractors, it also said that the Energy Department failed to supervise them adequately and demand that they meet established safety standards.
Friedman's investigators, who were at Savannah River from Sept. 30, 2008, to April 8, examined a representative sample of 10 government purchases and found safety problems with all of them.
"The department did not provide adequate oversight of the prime contractors' quality-assurance programs at Savannah River," the report found. "Particularly, the department did not adequately establish and implement processes to detect and/or prevent quality problems."
The Savannah River Site produced tritium, Plutonium-239 and other materials used to make nuclear weapons from 1954 to 1991, when the U.S. stopped making nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War.
Scientists and technicians at the Savannah River Site, one of several massive nuclear complexes around the country, still replenish tritium that's needed to maintain the United States' existing nuclear weapons.
The Savannah River Site is a large regional employer with about 10,000 workers, down from a peak of 25,000 in 1992.
Many employees are engaged in a huge environmental cleanup effort to alleviate the effects of decades of toxic nuclear waste production.
President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic-stimulus plan has $1.6 billion to accelerate the Savannah River Site cleanup, and hundreds of new workers already have been hired.
Officials with the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency responsible for maintaining and securing the nation's nuclear weapons, disputed the findings.
"NNSA agrees with the recommendations presented in the report but does not agree with the stated conclusions concerning the safety of the facilities, related cost impacts or with the tone of the report," wrote William Ostendorff, its principal deputy administrator.
Ostendorff said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had done a more extensive probe of safety issues at the MOX facility, one of three examined by the inspector general, and had concluded that the problems were "violations of low significance."
The heads of the Energy Department's Office of Environmental Management, which is in charge of waste cleanup at the Savannah River Site and other nuclear complexes, didn't dispute the inspector general's findings, however.
"The issues identified in this report represent a failure of contractors and subcontractors to properly implement existing requirements and policies," wrote Ines Triay, the acting assistant secretary for environmental management.
"Environmental Management agrees that current practices can and should be enhanced to provide greater federal and contractor oversight," Triay wrote.
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