Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 31 No. 19
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May 08, 2020

Increasing Signs Point Toward DOE Cleanup Sites Getting Back to Work Soon

By Wayne Barber

Even as the Energy Department stays mum on the schedule for staffing up operations that have been depopulated during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are increasing indicators that nuclear remediation sites will gradually start bring more workers back inside the fence before the end of June.

This is based on comments from sources around the DOE weapons complex, the expiration or relaxing of some state stay-at-home orders, and CEOs of two publicly traded government contractors predicting the economic impact on their businesses from the health crisis should start to ebb by July.

With the exception of the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project in Utah, which remains fully staffed, manpower Pretty sure it’s not all men. levels at the other 15 nuclear cleanup sites overseen by DOE’s Office of Environmental Management have largely been limited to 25% since the end of March

Workers at DOE’s Portsmouth Site in Ohio could start a phased return to work in early June, United Steelworkers Local 1-689 President John Knauff said by telephone Thursday. While no “hard date” has been mentioned, recent conversations with managers from site contractors create that impression, Knauff said.

The union official said he understands cleanup vendor Fluor-BWXT has submitted a return to work plan for review by officials at the Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office in Lexington, Ky., and likely EM headquarters in Washington, D.C..

The Energy Department did not respond to questions on when cleanup sites might start returning to more normal staff levels. In an email to DOE employees last week, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette promised “a deliberate, data-driven process for a phased return to the physical office space when the time is right.”

Fluor-BWXT did post an online notice this week encouraging workers who are either telecommuting or on paid leave to do online training while they are awaiting a return-to-work date. The company “has always used web-based training in conjunction with hands-on classroom instruction to ensure that our workers are safe,” spokesman Jack Williams said in a Thursday email.

The first phase of returning to work could start as early as May 18 at certain sites such as the Idaho Cleanup Project, an industry source said by phone Thursday.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) on May 1 started lifting some of the stay-at-home restrictions that have been in place to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. The DOE Idaho National Laboratory said on its website that staffing levels started to increase on May 6.

Representatives of the Energy Department and INL remediation contractor Fluor Idaho did not immediately respond as to when the lab might start to increase staffing levels.

As of last week, Fluor Idaho had 900 of its 1,800 people at INL working – evenly split between those actually on-site and those telecommuting.

The Hanford Site in Washington state, DOE’s largest and most complex cleanup site, will not return to normal staffing operations for at last another week, Site Manager Brian Vance said Wednesday in an online memo. “Planning for an eventual return of more than 11,000 workers to the site is a complex undertaking.”

Vance promised that a phased return to work would be done in consultation with contractors, suppliers, government health agencies, and the local medical community.

A partial stop work order from DOE for the Waste Treatment Plant being built at Hanford will stay in effect through May 23, a manager for construction contractor Bechtel said last week.

The order for the plant that will convert Hanford tank waste into a stable glass form for disposal keeps Bechtel on the same “essential mission critical” operating status as the other major contractors at the former plutonium production site, WTP Project Director Valerie McCain said in an April 29 memo posted on the project website.

The current stop-work order, issued March 24, is being extended by a month, McCain said. The Energy Department can lift the order before May 23, she added. The Energy Department expects to start converting low-activity waste into glass at WTP by the end of 2023.

While the Savannah River Site in South Carolina continues to plan to increased staffing, it is not ready to change its current essential mission critical status, the SRS operations office said online Thursday.

The Energy Department faces complicated decisions in deciding when and how to return staff in large numbers, another industry source said Wednesday.

For example: How tough will it be to maintain 6-foot distances to curb the spread of the virus; should everybody be required to wear masks and should the employer pay for them; how do contractors and DOE decide who should be considered higher-risk workers – because of age, illness history, or other factors – and should they be allowed to continue to telecommute? There are many contingencies to plan for, the source said.

23 COVID Cases Found So Far in Cleanup Complex

There are 23 confirmed COVID-19 cases within the Office of Environmental Management complex, a DOE representative said by email Thursday.

There are zero fatalities, the official added, saying the nuclear cleanup office is using lessons learned and best practices to protect employee health.

There are now three confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Hanford Site, the latest involving an employee of cleanup contractor CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation, according to an online bulletin.

The individual, whose last day at work was April 14, recently received a positive diagnosis for novel coronavirus 2019, CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation President and CEO Ty Blackford said in the May 1 message to employees. The facility where the person worked, which was not identified in the document, has been cleaned in keeping with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A company spokesperson declined to provide further details.

To date, SRS has 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Ten employees have recovered and returned to work.

The Paducah Site in Kentucky has reported two cases, Portsmouth has confirmed one, as has the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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