Energy Department fails to ‘acknowledge’ whistleblowers at Hanford site cleanup

RICHLAND, WASH. — The Energy Department has been receiving criticism over its lack of transparency over a former nuclear production site in Eastern Washington state, after administrators laid off employees who were openly opposed to its cleanup tactics.

After consistently missed deadlines by the Department of Energy, Washington state is taking the DOE to court to amend requirements on a 2010 agreement. The state is now looking for new ways to hold the department accountable.

The Hanford complex had originally been built for World War II and produced the 20 pounds of plutonium used for the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan. By the time the complex stopped producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, it had also created 177 tanks of nuclear waste, currently being stored underground.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is now the largest cleanup site in the U.S., spanning over 586 square miles near Richland, Wash., in the middle of the desert.

The rural area is only a couple miles from the Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest and the greatest concern for state residents. Leaks in the tanks have already been detected — if they were to leak a large amount of waste, the river would be contaminated.

The U.S. Department of Energy employs over 8,000 workers on the Hanford site, but not all of those workers agree with the DOE’s cleanup methods. Contractors in the past have kept the DOE accountable by “blowing the whistle.”

Federal courts in 2010 mandated deadlines for the DOE to finish its cleanup on the site. But the deadlines keep getting moved back, and more Hanford employees step forward voicing concerns about the cleanup process. The area has been a cleanup site for 25 years, and it’s estimated to take another 33.

“They’ve consistently mismanaged the cleanup; there’s no doubt about that,” said Bill Lang, an environmental historian and professor at Portland State University. “I don’t think there’s anybody who would defend the Department of Energy’s administration on this cleanup.

Oversight on the Department of Energy has become challenging, as whistleblowers find their comments being met with closed doors and, sometimes, termination.

“The DOE hasn’t really acknowledged whistleblowing at Hanford ever, which makes it really hard to correct behavior that leads to whistleblowing,” said Liz Mattson, program coordinator at the Hanford Challenge. The Hanford Challenge is an organization that helps whistleblowers with resources if they have trouble being heard internally.

Employees who have disagreed with the Energy Department’s course of action have been “suppressed” instead of rewarded, Mattson said.

Within the year a handful of contractors who have been critical of the site’s cleanup process have been fired, including former contractor Walter Tamosaitis who is filing a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

Washington River Protection Solutions, the unit for URS Corp. employing contractors for the Hanford site, declined to comment. WRPS told The Seattle Times on Aug. 20 Tamosaitis was one of 200 workers laid off to “align employment levels with project work scope and federal funding.” WRPS also explained another whistleblower’s termination to The Seattle Times due to “poor performance.”

Mattson gave a different story for Tamosaitis. She said he was fired because he refused to lie about the design on the waste treatment plant, claiming it as finished when it was incomplete.

“There’s the official line of how business is supposed to be done, and then there’s also the reality of how people do their jobs in actuality on site,” she added. “There’s usually two different stories, when you ask for the official story versus boots on the ground, what actually happened. It’s hard to usually get a really clear picture of what’s happening.”

Missed deadlines

Site administrators feel rushed to safely remove the waste before it could cause damage to residents and the environment.

The DOE is required to follow three important deadlines: completing the waste treatment plants to get them operating; retrieving all of the waste that is currently underground; and finishing the cleanup and disposing of all waste.

The waste treatment plants will be used to turn the nuclear waste into glass in a process called vitrification. Without completing the first task, building the waste treatment facilities, the waste being retrieved from underground can’t be transformed and disposed of.

Many have said the site is mismanaged, and that trying to save time have caused delays in the cleanup.

Shortcuts to the site in the past have led to more complications later. The DOE invested years into building the vitrification facilities, for example, before contractors began realizing the design wasn’t going to work.

Mattson said the pressure to make deadlines for the DOE is a double-edged sword. While the public is rightfully concerned about safety measures, she said, trying to rush the process has also led to mistakes and employees losing their jobs.

“If a contractor is having trouble finishing their work on time … if someone blows a whistle on that behavior, then that can have an effect on whether the contractor keeps their contract,” Mattson said. “Often that’s the thing that’s hardest for contractors to deal with, is public perception and media around their work.”

Lang said he believes contractors’ mistakes have been a result of miscommunication by the DOE. He said many of Hanford’s contractors have become scapegoats for the Energy Department when it has failed to meet deadlines.

“It’s pretty difficult to believe that the contractors, any of them — all of them perfectly capable — could screw up again, and again, and again,” he said.

The waste treatment plants were originally supposed to begin operating by 2011, which was a deadline imposed by the federal court. The deadline has now been moved back to 2019, meaning all waste wouldn’t be removed until 2048.

Lee Overton, assistant to the Washington state attorney general, said the Energy Department didn’t inform the state until 2011 that it would not be meeting the deadline within the same year.

Overton said the Energy Department has been uncommunicative with the state about its progress. When it failed to meet its first deadline, he said, the state imposed its own suggestions for the timeline after the DOE failed to offer alternative dates.

“The Department of Energy consented to agree on certain deadlines and they are failing to meet almost all of them,” Overton said. “Is that in part due to mismanagement? Possibly.” 

Hanford’s past and future

The DOE currently spends approximately $2 billion a year on the Hanford site cleanup, totaling well over $100 billion in the coming years. Critics are concerned the department’s discouragement of whistleblowers could lead to inefficiency or fewer safety precautions, especially given Hanford’s past.

Historically the DOE has been extremely secretive about its work at Hanford. For decades almost all Hanford employees didn’t know they were working with nuclear weapons; that secret led to fewer safety measures and cancer risks.

So far about 7,000 former Hanford employees have been compensated for $10.6 billion by the U.S. Department of Labor for health problems, most of them from when plutonium makers were kept in the dark, said Rachel Leiton, director of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program in the Labor Department.

“The Columbia river itself has been a lifeline for thousands of years,” said Russell Jim, program director of Native tribe Yakama Nation’s Environmental Restoration & Waste Management program. “They’re concerned only with trying to do a cursory cleanup. They don’t seem to be willing to clean it up to a point where everything is safe.”

But John Schweppe, a Richland resident and physicist, said he would only be concerned about the Hanford site if its administrators were not trying to fix the problem. He said it would take a long time and an immense amount of waste to leak for the river to get contaminated.

“You’ve got to keep it in perspective,” Schweppe said. “Everybody’s concerned small leaks can turn into big leaks, so they’re looking into it. … Nobody’s putting their hands up and saying, ‘It’s too expensive; let’s just walk away.’ That would be the only doomsday scenario that I can think of.”

“They’ve been leaking incrementally for a long period of time,” State Sen. Sharon Brown said. “We’ve been aware of the leaks and they’re being monitored.”

The DOE has reduced the cleanup area from 586 to 385 square miles as of 2011, and Brown said much of that area has been returned as public land. The hope, she said, is to make the site both a public reservation for recreational programs and a research district.

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