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MINDING THE STORE

THEY DON'T MAKE BOMBS ANYMORE AT ROCKY FLATS. BUT THE PLANT IS AS DANGEROUS AS EVER.

In 1991 DOE and EG&G created a system requiring workers to do every task strictly by the book, a procedural manual written by white-collar staffers. The idea was to eliminate human error. The shakedown period for the Integrated Work Control Package system, however, continues to this day.

Workers despise the program for its minutiae, which includes lengthy instructions for such tasks as tightening bolts. The cumbersome procedures are often written by office personnel who've never been in the building where the task needs to be done, says Dave Navarro, an alarm technician and union member. "It takes two years for new personnel to get security clearance to go in some of these buildings," he says. While they wait, he says, they work, turning out procedural instructions that sometimes stop projects before they start.

In one case, a crew of eight workers was assembled on a Sunday at double-time wages to drill holes in a wall on the second floor of Building 771, recounts Dennis Wise, president of the steelworkers' local. When the crew made its way to the work site, it found that the wall was a fire barrier. On it were lettered instructions ordering that the wall not be tampered with until the fire department had been consulted. The person who wrote the work package had never seen the wall, says Wise, and no crew member thought to make arrangements with the fire department. Net result: wasted time and money.

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Both DOE's Silverman and EG&G's Mann maintain that the work-control package encourages discipline and uniformity that are required when dealing with hazardous materials. And the system is working much better now, they say. Changing a lightbulb--in one notorious incident, 43 personnel and 1,000 man-hours were needed--now requires only one worker and a single hour of time, says Mann.

Wise disputes that the work package program has improved that much, but acknowledges that things are running more smoothly after some recent streamlining by EG&G.

In the meantime, the strict procedural requirements have added to a huge backlog of work orders in almost every "hot" building (those that contain radioactive waste or other fissile material). According to a report earlier this year by senior mentor F.H. Davidson, Building 371 has a backlog of over 1,400 maintenance jobs. "Nearly every back-up system in the building is deteriorated or inoperable," Davidson found. Due to insufficient budget allocations, problems in the building can't be taken care of this year, he concluded.

Harry Mann says the work-order backlogs aren't as worrisome as they may appear. "Some of the items will never get fixed, because they're not safety issues and the building is not going to be used again," he says. Yet according to the DOE's Brainard-Jordan, Building 371 is slated to be a "key player" in the plant's future, serving as the prime storage facility for what is known as "special nuclear material," the most concentrated and potent of fissile materials kept at Rocky Flats.

Brainard-Jordan says frustration with the work package system has contributed to friction between hourly workers and the plant's managers and other salaried employees. Blue-collar veterans often view managers as "rookies," who in turn see hourly workers as uncooperative in implementing the program.

In fact, many of the white-collar employees are relative newcomers to the nuclear industry. EG&G's acquisition of the Rocky Flats contract in January 1990, came on the heels of a 1988 contract to operate DOE's Mound Facility in Ohio. The sudden expansion put a heavy strain on the company's managerial staff. By the end of the Eighties, says Phua Young, a research analyst with the Lehman Brothers investment bank in New York, EG&G was shifting away from dependence on government contract work to concentrate on commercial products such as precision electronic instruments.

But Rockwell's ouster--and DOE's solicitation of EG&G to take over Rocky Flats--caught the corporation not fully prepared. "They probably had personnel at appropriate levels" prior to accepting the $4 billion contract for Rocky Flats, says Young. When the unexpected bonanza came EG&G's way, however, new management material had to be rapidly recruited. A massive infusion of college-educated but marginally experienced personnel followed, Young suggests.

Newly hired salaried employees and subcontractor workers--who tend to be a transient work force--are often ignorant about the history of the plant and its toxic mishaps, union president Dennis Wise maintains. "They'll have no idea what they're going to get into when they try to clean up these buildings," he predicts, "because the company is getting rid of the people who know what's there."

Wise points to an incident detailed in an EG&G memo last year. According to the report, one winter morning in 1993 waste solidification coordinator Mark Ries escorted two visitors from the Nevada Test Site to a contaminated area known as the "904 pad." Ries had received all the safety training necessary to be allowed in the area, where the worst of the contaminated ground is protected by tents and hard-walled structures called "Permacons."

Ries and his guests entered Tent 10, which housed a Permacon. Though the door to the Permacon is posted with six warning signs, including a radiological control sign prohibiting entry without respirators and protective clothing, Ries opened it and entered along with one of the visitors. When an hourly employee shouted a warning, the two men quickly retreated. According to the report, Ries explained he thought he was in a tent with a "cold" Permacon. Then he and the visitors committed an additional safety violation by leaving the area and making their way to the office of the pad foreman, in all probability spreading contaminated dirt on their shoes to other areas. According to the report, testing revealed alpha radiation contamination (typically associated with the presence of plutonium) in the mouth and nose of each individual.

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