News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Radioactive material work demands effective oversight

Several employees of a subcontractor working for Bechtel Jacobs Co., the Department of Energy’s cleanup manager, lost their jobs last week after a spot visit to a break trailer outside a shuttered nuclear reactor found them sleeping, playing cards, smoking marijuana and watching television.

The workers were preparing to remove tons of highly radioactive fuel salts from the Molten Salt Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Police drug dogs subsequently found marijuana in a vehicle in the parking lot. As a result, Bechtel Jacobs said it administered drug tests to more than 50 people working on the project. It fired one worker who refused testing.

Obviously it is unwise to smoke pot when handling radioactive material. John Shewairy of the DOE’s Oak Ridge office said the department has a “zero-tolerance” policy for drug use.

That’s all well and good. But how does the department, and Bechtel Jacobs, in particular, ensure compliance? Is there no on-site supervision? Are subcontractors’ employees drug tested prior to beginning work?

DOE Manager Gerald Boyd called the fired workers’ behavior “unacceptable” and said the handling of the incident “shows that we’re serious.”

But the incident should never have occurred and DOE must hold someone accountable. If Bechtel Jacobs can’t assure DOE that its folks handling radioactive materials are sober at the time, then DOE needs to find another cleanup manager.

According to a Scripps Howard news story about the incident, a fluorine leak has suspended much of the work at the Molten Salt Reactor.

One can’t help but wonder why that leak occurred.

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