Nuclear Safety:

DOE's Investigation of Phosgene Gas Contamination Was Inadequate, but Experts Conclude That Worker Safety and Facilities Are Not Threatened

GAO-07-712: Published: May 31, 2007. Publicly Released: May 31, 2007.

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More than 700,000 tons of uranium are stored at two Department of Energy (DOE) sites where uranium enrichment took place and where two facilities are being constructed to treat depleted uranium. Some of the storage cylinders for uranium came from the Army more than 50 years ago and may originally have contained phosgene, a toxic gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I. In September 2005, DOE's Inspector General issued an alert warning that residual phosgene, if present, could threaten the safety of people and the treatment facilities. GAO was directed to review DOE's investigation of possible phosgene contamination of uranium storage cylinders. GAO consulted a panel of experts to assess the adequacy of DOE's investigation and whether possible phosgene contamination could threaten the new treatment facilities under construction.

According to members of GAO's expert panel, although DOE adequately demonstrated that the public would not be harmed if small amounts of phosgene escaped from the storage cylinders, it neglected to explicitly document its analysis of worker safety in its investigation of possible phosgene contamination. DOE's regulations and guidance call for thorough safety analyses of newly identified hazards, such as possible phosgene contamination, to protect workers and the public. Yet DOE assumed, without explicitly documenting, that existing worker safety procedures were adequate to protect workers from the possible presence of phosgene. After GAO identified the need for DOE to support this key assumption, DOE provided supplemental information on worker safety; GAO's panel agreed that this supplement sufficiently supported DOE's position. In addition, although DOE's guidance calls for independent review of investigation results, DOE officials supervising the phosgene investigation also served as reviewers. This lack of independent review may have contributed to weaknesses in the investigation. The experts GAO consulted agreed that, for two reasons, the facilities under construction in Ohio and Kentucky would not be threatened by possible phosgene contamination of uranium storage cylinders. First, at the start of treatment operations, cylinders containing depleted uranium will be placed inside pressure vessels designed to withstand and contain any leak from a cylinder. If phosgene were present, it would not affect either the pressure vessels or the treatment facilities. Second, during subsequent steps, any phosgene that may be processed with the depleted uranium would be destroyed by the extreme heat and water vapor applied during the treatment process.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure the comprehensiveness and technical adequacy of investigations of potentially unsafe situations at DOE's nuclear facilities, the Secretary of Energy should ensure that safety investigations benefit from a review process that includes reviewers who are sufficiently independent of the investigations being done.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE)issued new guidance on developing technical safety requirements for nuclear facilities--DOE G 423.1-1A "Implementation Guide for Use in Developing Technical Safety Requirements." This guidance described the process for conducting safety investigations of potentially unsafe situations at DOE's nuclear facilities. The guidance provides for independent reviews of technical safety requirements and stipulates that "Individual reviewers should not review their own work or work for which they have direct responsibility."

    Recommendation: To ensure the comprehensiveness and technical adequacy of investigations of potentially unsafe situations at DOE's nuclear facilities, the Secretary of Energy should ensure that safety investigations benefit from a review process that provides objective evaluations of the methodologies being used and the findings and conclusions reached.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE)issued new guidance on developing technical safety requirements for nuclear facilities--DOE G 423.1-1A "Implementation Guide for Use in Developing Technical Safety Requirements." This guidance described the process for conducting safety investigations of potentially unsafe situations at DOE's nuclear facilities. The guidance states that independent reviews should be conducted of safety investigations and that these reviews should include objective reviews of "unresolved safety question determinations; proposed tests and experiments; procedures; programs; facility changes and modifications; technical safety requirements changes; facility operation, maintenance, and testing; DOE and industry issues of safety significance; and any other safety-related items."

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