Having been involved in quality and process control for quite a few years now, I tend to read any article regarding a quality issue or new ideas for quality or process improvement. Last week, Washington state’s Tri-City Herald published an article by Annette Cary about tanks at a vitrification plant in Hanford failing to meet quality assurance standards. The scope of the quality assurance problem became very clear and gives an excellent example of the importance of quality assurance systems.
Vitrification is the process of turning a substance into glass or a glassy substance by heat and fusion. In this case, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is building a plant to convert radioactive waste into an easier-to-handle, glass-like substance. This is not just any radioactive treatment plant, either. When completed, it will be the world’s largest radioactive treatment facility. But before it opens, it faces quality problems.
DOE auditors reported that quality assurance requirements were not met for tanks produced for the facility. Quality assurance data for tank welds were missing for some of the weld points, and the inspection technique itself is being questioned. “For the vessels that we reviewed, we identified multiple instances where quality assurance records were either missing or were not traceable to the specific area or part of the vessel,” states a memo from Gregory H. Friedman, the inspector general to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.
Because the tanks are used to store the radioactive material during the vitrification process, a tank failure is a major safety risk. A leak could contaminate the area and make much of the plant unusable for an indefinite period of time.
Missing quality documentation, traceability issues, or failure to have or follow quality requirements are critical, and the cost of not having adequate quality assurance is high. In this case, the vendor producing the tanks was paid $30 million, of which it may have to refund a portion. The inspection failure could also result in a loss or delay in operation at the $12.2 billion facility. That’s no small expense.
These types of stories always amaze me. No matter how much evidence there is, some companies will never understand that when you cut corners on quality, you are placing the security and trust your organization has worked so hard to build right next to a ticking time bomb.
If only there were a way to collect and monitor quality data and relate it back to traceability, sampling requirement control, supplier quality control, or regulatory requirements, and maintain these data in a secure, easy-to-use database that would allow users slice and dice the information with the click of a mouse. That would be something, wouldn’t it?