Dissension, poor communications found at federal nuclear site

Internal strife and management breakdowns at South Carolina's Savannah River Site threaten to undermine the public's confidence in the mission of one of the country's largest and most critical federally owned nuclear sites, according to a report by an agency watchdog.

The Energy Department's inspector general reached this conclusion after conducting a four-month investigation into allegations of misconduct by a senior official in the department's Office of Environmental Management, which supervises the Savannah River Site. While investigators did not discover specific wrongdoing -- the five allegations either could not be substantiated or witnesses provided conflicting testimony -- the IG did find a facility rife with tension and infighting.

"We encountered witnesses who testified that there was confusion as to lines of authority, responsibility and accountability; poor internal communications; a lack of coordination; failure to share essential information among key officials; and, insufficient follow-up on critically important issues and decisions," the report stated. "These factors appeared to have contributed to an unusual level of distrust and acrimony. Some witnesses described their colleagues and the actions of their colleagues in highly personal and often derogatory terms."

The three-page summary also cited concerns about racism and reverse discrimination, although the inspector general did not elaborate on those issues. The full report will not be made public, the IG said.

"Testimony provided by many of the officials we interviewed portrayed an operating atmosphere inconsistent with the objective of maintaining the credibility of, and public confidence in, Environmental Management activities and the Savannah River Site," the report stated.

The IG recommended that Energy develop a plan to improve relations and collaboration between Environmental Management headquarters officials and Savannah River Site representatives.

In a statement, Undersecretary for Energy Kristina Johnson agreed that "tensions have risen to an unacceptable and highly personal level and must be addressed. Moving forward, we all need to work even harder to promote an atmosphere of mutual respect among co-workers -- an environment of collaboration, cooperation and better communication."

An anonymous Savannah River Site employee complaint about a senior official in Environmental Management sparked the investigation. The whistleblower alleged the official engaged in prohibited political and personnel activities, including directing a $9 million Recovery Act payment to certain Historically Black Colleges and Universities "in return for something of value on behalf of a member of Congress." Investigators concluded the complaint was unfounded.

The Savannah River Site is of the largest federal beneficiaries of Recovery Act funds; it received $1.6 billion for nuclear cleanup and job creation.

The report did not name the Environmental Management official or the member of Congress. But The State, a South Carolina newspaper, said it obtained a copy of the complaint and subsequent allegations, which each named Cynthia Anderson, the head of stimulus work for Environmental Management. The member of Congress in question is Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., according to the newspaper.

The IG also investigated allegations that Savannah River Site officials were inappropriately asked to arrange meetings with contractor employee union representatives and to access subcontractor personnel files for data mining of demographic information.

Witnesses offered different accounts of the charges and of their potential ethical improprieties. The IG said Energy's Office of General Counsel should resolve the matter.

The final two complaints suggested Savannah River contractor officials were pressured to hire three specific individuals and to hold Recovery Act job fairs in certain congressional districts. The IG found inconsistent evidence regarding those allegations.

"Witnesses' testimony was conflicting and irreconcilable," the report said. "Perceptions, interpretations and recollections of these events as well as views on the intent of the individuals involved varied dramatically."

The IG interviewed more than 80 contractor and federal employees in South Carolina and Washington as part of the investigation and analyzed about 150,000 e-mails, the report said.

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