A Credibility Project

By Garry Kranz

Jun. 21, 2007

Scientists working on the Yucca Mountain Project are learning more these days than how to safely dispose of radioactive nuclear waste. Since January, they have been trained and tested on tasks ranging from communication skills to the proper procedures for recording research data.

Refining these and other skills could come in handy should they need to testify before Congress and defend their research—a likely scenario when lawmakers hold hearings in 2008 on the future of Yucca Mountain.

Rather than sitting in classrooms, scientists receive training online via 20-minute modules that are followed by exercises in which they demonstrate applied knowledge of the information. Flash-animated and narrated PowerPoint demonstrations are used to drive home key points and make the material interesting.

Training is oriented around common procedures that scientists use on a daily basis, says Cheryl Ann Seminara, who in January was hired to lead organizational development initiatives for Yucca Mountain’s 625-person workforce, including about 400 research scientists.

“What we’re doing is training them not just on how to follow a procedure, but also the impact on the entire organization of not following those procedures,” Seminara says.

Renewed focus on training corresponds to organizational change taking place at Yucca Mountain, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. Federal officials envision Yucca Mountain, situated about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as a possible dump site for the nation’s nuclear waste. A congressional committee in October 2006 appointed Sandia National Laboratories, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to manage the Yucca Mountain Project, replacing Bechtel SAIC as prime contractor.

Rather than try to coordinate training remotely through the Albuquerque headquarters, Sandia officials decided to bring programs in-house. That necessitated creating training programs from the ground up, says Patrice Sanchez, the business operations manager for Sandia’s Yucca Mountain Project office.

Particularly challenging is the fact that all employees—from scientists to administrative support workers—are bound by certain procedures.

“We have some very unique requirements around procedures that we have to follow, particularly because all of our processes are auditable,” Sanchez says.

For example, scientists are being trained to follow prescribed procedures when they make entries in scientific notebooks. Haphazard scribbling is out; instead, researchers have a long list of painstaking rules to follow.

Stipulations include what information can be written in page margins, whether accompanying documents may be affixed with staples or adhesive tape, how corrections are to be handled, how often the recorded work has to be reviewed by superiors, and a slew of other details.

“All of our data is recorded into scientific notebooks, and [the data] forms the basis for longer documents such as reports. Everything we do is based off that data,” so failing to adhere to the procedure could cast doubt on the validity of the research, Seminara says.

Previously, training consisted of little more than scientists acknowledging that they had reviewed existing procedures, she says.

The need to improve training procedures was underscored in 2005 following allegations that some former Yucca Mountain scientists had fabricated their data. A Department of Energy report in March blamed upper management at Yucca Mountain for failing to hold workers accountable and neglecting to put effective reviews in place to ensure the integrity of the research being performed.

The new training initiatives are an attempt to address those concerns, Yucca Mountain officials say. Thus far, about eight programs have been developed, with a catalog of 30 training courses expected to be available by July, Seminara says. A committee comprising representatives from the training department, a manager and subject-matter experts is assigned to evaluate each new training initiative every six months, “to make sure it’s still applicable.”

Scientists are performing tests and analyzing various scenarios in connection with a license application to be submitted this month to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Obtaining the license is required before the Energy Department can begin construction of the repository.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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