January 25, 1989
By Cass Peterson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Energy Department investigators blame E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. for a January incident that damaged the primary cooling system at the Savannah River Plant's K Reactor, saying the incident is "symptomatic of systemic problems" at the nuclear weapons plant.
In an unusually blunt report made public yesterday, the investigators said management shortcomings were mainly responsible for the mishap, which occurred when pipes were overpressurized during a routine test. Operators later discovered that a valve was in the wrong position for the test.
The report, prepared by a special technical team, also outlined more than two dozen operator errors that hampered other tests in the week leading up to the Jan. 22 incident, suggesting that "the necessary discipline is not in place" to ensure safe operation of the plant.
Unable to locate proper hardware, for example, technicians used nuts and bolts "selected at random from shop parts" to secure critical valves and then certified that the proper equipment had been used, the report said. In another example, a senior supervisor checked calculations by "approximations" because the calculator he was using did not have a square-root function.
Du Pont, which has operated Savannah River under contract for more than 35 years, will be succeeded by Westinghouse Electric Co. at the end of this month. Savannah River has the nation's last three production reactors for tritium, a perishable gas that is a critical component of nuclear weapons. All three reactors have been shut down for nearly a year because of safety questions.
The January incident involved a routine pressure test on the K Reactor, which Energy Department officials hope to restart first. Puzzled by low pressure during the test--and unaware that a key valve had been misses--operators injected too much water into the cooling system, causing a water hammer effect that damaged the valve and rattled pipes throughout the reactor building.
A technician described it as sounding like a "sonic boom" and said he could feel the building shake.
The report said that du Pont did not immediately report the incident to senior Energy Department officials because the reactor was not operating at the time, there were no injuries and damage was less' than $50,000. Department officials in Washington did not learn of the incident until two days later.
Several days after the incident, the report said, du Pont managers still "had only a limited knowledge of the event" and "did not recognize the relationship of the circumstances of this event to the fundamental causes of poor performance at nuclear plants throughout the world."