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Over Easy: Workplace Climate of Retaliation at Hanford

177 Tanks at Hanford Site

On Monday, Hanford whistleblower Donna Busche filed a new complaint against her employer, Department of Energy (DOE) contractor Bechtel, alleging retaliation in the workplace after she voiced concerns over safety issues at the huge Cold War era contaminated site. She alleges “URS and Bechtel officials excluded her from meetings and belittled her authority.” She also alleges that “she has experienced continued harassment, isolation, exclusion, and unwarranted criticism as she tries to ensure that one of the largest environmental cleanup efforts in the world is completed safely.”

For Hanford history, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) summarizes:

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for one of the world’s
largest environmental cleanup projects: the treatment and disposal of
millions of gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste at its 586-square mile
Hanford Site in southeastern Washington State. A total of nine
nuclear reactors––including the world’s first operating large-scale reactor,
developed as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II––were
built at Hanford and operated until the late 1980s. The primary mission of
these reactors was to produce plutonium and other special nuclear
materials for DOE’s nuclear weapons program. Some of the large
volumes of hazardous and radioactive waste that resulted from nuclear
materials production was deposited directly into the ground in trenches,
injection wells, or other facilities designed to allow the waste to disperse
into the soil, and some was packaged into drums and other containers
and buried. The most dangerous waste was stored in 177 large
underground storage tanks. The underground tanks currently hold more
than 56 million gallons of this waste—enough to fill an area the size of a
football field to a depth of over 150 feet.

Although getting any real information from a layperson’s perspective is excruciating due to the secrecy of Hanford’s operations for decades, we do know a few things. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the western hemisphere, representing two thirds of our nation’s nuclear waste by volume. The government owns and operates the site, and it uses contractors who, for lack of better language, like money for nothing. Years ago, there was a plan to construct a waste treatment plant, to process the waste into a stable glass.

Things did not go according to plan. Apparently, that is where our most recent whistleblower comes in- Donna Busche was responsible for creating safety-type documents for the glass-making (vitrification) plant. But, she had safety concerns and she voiced them. Since this sort of thing made her the ‘enemy’ to the ilk who wanted to continue to rip people off as the tanks leak to the vicinity of the Columbia River, they made her workplace a living hell, it appears. Currently, there is no waste treatment plant in operation. Dates and numbers of dollars change from one day to the next: billions of dollars. Decades to completion. Meanwhile the toxic brew, the 56 million gallons of waste sits in tanks and there are leaks, when there were never supposed to be any leaks. The passing public is beginning to understand the extent of the betrayal; people expected cleanup and never dreamed of a toxic money pit.

The contamination continues to challenge the engineers. For example, the toxic liquid must be pumped from an underground tank to the vitrification plant. But, the pumping system failed during the emptying of C tank farm tank C-107, causing even more delay. There must be a working pumping system in place to empty the tanks, and this delay added to what amounts to a spectacular failure spanning decades, at Hanford, a site where we can ill-afford any more time, failure, or games.

The tanks are leaking, there is no waste treatment plant, money keeps disappearing, and now, for the cherry on top, the workers who are our last hope, are being harassed in the workplace if they demonstrate anything that might indicate the presence of a conscience. We already know, for example, that whistleblower Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, a nuclear engineer, was fired for voicing concerns, and we know that he got zero support from the new Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz.

The Hanford whistleblowers really are our source of information about the site issues. So far it looks as if Bechtel has demonstrated competence in little more than bullying its workers who express safety concerns in particular. This is also a clear illustration of the fox guarding the henhouse; the whisltleblower protection act appears to be pretty useless when the government owns the plant in question.


Hanford: Whistleblower files new complaint

Problems Seen Impeding Cleanup of Ex-U.S. Nuclear Weapons Site

Hanford nuclear cleanup slow, workers frustrated

Photo from Energy Gov

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