A funny thing about whistleblowers: They are seldom the naturally rebellious types you might imagine. Rather, they tend to be conservative people dedicated to proper procedures, even if that sometimes lands them in absurd Alice in Wonderland situations and destroys their careers.
That's been true throughout our nation's history – from the Revolutionary War sailors who, in 1777, told Congress that the Navy's top commander was torturing British prisoners, and then were arrested for complaining, up to today's National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who is hiding out in Russia to avoid charges of treason, even as The New York Times praises him for doing "a great service" to this country.
It's particularly clear in the long struggle over how to deal with the nation's largest nuclear and toxic waste mess, at the Hanford Site beside the Columbia River in southeastern Washington. Hanford's nine nuclear reactors and other giant plants produced plutonium for thousands of nuclear warheads from 1943 to 1988. That mission is over. But as the cleanup of the site's accumulated waste and pollution drags on, Hanford seems to be most efficient at producing whistleblowers whose careers then blow up.
Countless experts working for the government, or for corporations doing the cleanup for the government, have broken ranks over the years to charge that Hanford is poorly run and unacceptably dangerous. It's a message that tends to irritate their bosses, but it's also the main way that the public has learned of Hanford's many real problems.
Pollution, including a great deal of radioactive material, escaped into the ground, the groundwater, the atmosphere and the river – often through intentional releases and burials. So far, the government has spent $40 billion on the cleanup, and the estimated eventual total – another $114 billion, at this point – keeps rising. The U.S. Department of Energy, ostensibly in charge, has contracted with some of the world's largest corporations to do the cleanup – including DuPont, General Electric, Rockwell International, Westinghouse and Bechtel – and there are hundreds of subcontractors and thousands of safety workers. They have removed 20 tons of plutonium and 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, demolished more than 700 contaminated buildings, and collected the debris and contaminated soil in a special landfill larger than 50 football fields.
Yet the cleanup still faces two seemingly insurmountable challenges: More than 50 million gallons of complex chemical compounds – including acids, heavy metals, and 46 radioactive isotopes, some with half-lives thousands of years long – are still stored in 177 huge, decrepit underground tanks. Whistleblowers have forced the Energy Department to acknowledge that at least 1 million gallons have leaked out of these so-called "tank farms." As a temporary solution, much of the waste was pumped from the original single-walled tanks into double-walled tanks that were supposed to be less likely to leak. But apparently a few of the tanks are leaking now, one way or another, including a double-walled tank whose inner wall has failed. And everyone agrees that more will leak in the future if no action is taken. So all of the tanks must be emptied and the waste must be treated to make it safer for longer-term storage.
Scientists are not even sure exactly what's in the tanks, much less how to treat it. Weapons byproducts are much more complex than commercial power plant waste, and at times the contents of different tanks were mixed, triggering unknown chemical reactions. The Energy Department has tried one unsuccessful treatment method after another. The latest design, the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, is the largest construction project in the Western Hemisphere. Originally scheduled to begin operating in 2009, it's long overdue and plagued by problems.
The whistleblowers generally describe a system not unlike those in other large government-corporate projects. The stakes are uniquely high at Hanford, though. The Energy Department, the contractors and the subcontractors hide or minimize difficulties to keep project funds flowing. The agency's minuscule Hanford staff, under intense pressure, lacks both the expertise and the power to keep contractors in line. Goals and deadlines are often blown. Meanwhile, the corporations are protected by an extraordinary level of indemnity in their contracts. The revolving-door syndrome allows government officials to take corporation jobs even as corporate brass transfer to top agency positions. It all encourages a get-along, go-along psychology.