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The Hanford Whistleblowers

For decades, insiders have reported problems in the cleanup of our worst nuclear mess — but is anyone listening?

 

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.

Time and again, the Hanford bosses insist that the cleanup is proceeding safely, generally dismissing whistleblowers as disgruntled employees. Sometimes they threaten, isolate or otherwise retaliate against whistleblowers, and apparently feel justified in doing so. So the whistleblowers suffer. Even when they seek protection from the federal Department of Labor or file lawsuits, they often lose on technicalities, or because of loopholes in whistleblower-protection laws.

Whether any single Hanford whistleblower is right – there are experts on either side of every case – the very number of them indicates the extent of Hanford's problems. So let's allow them to tell the story, in this timeline of the most notable Hanford whistleblowers. And let's honor the very act of whistleblowing, so often necessary to keep government and corporations on track, no matter how much it disturbs our peace of mind.

Blowing the whistle on 70 years of secrecy

1943: Secrecy was paramount from the start. As World War II raged, in 1943 the U.S. Army took over more than 580 square miles along the Columbia River, evicting more than 1,500 people and razing two farm towns, Hanford and Whitebluffs. Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, believed that the area's location – remote, but conveniently close to the enormous electrical power of Grand Coulee Dam – was perfect for his Promethean quest: developing an atomic bomb. The evicted people were told only that their sacrifice strengthened the war effort. Later, Groves reflected on Hanford's sloppy methods during wartime: "Chances would have to be taken that in more normal times would be considered reckless in the extreme."

Over the next 43 years, Hanford processed 20 million pieces of uranium fuel to create plutonium-239 for nuclear warheads, including the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II. Exempted from environmental laws for most of this period, Hanford soon became the most polluted site in the Western Hemisphere. Workers in the initial years had to sign secrecy oaths, and anyone who went public with information got fired. Site managers dumped 450 billion gallons of radioactive liquid wastes directly in the ground, contaminating 3 billion metric tons of soil and creating eight plumes of radioactive groundwater beside the river and other larger plumes farther from the river. More than 50 million gallons of waste were stored in buried tanks, or "tank farms," which often developed leaks.

1978: Tank Farm Surveillance Manager Stephen Stalos quit working for the main contractor, Rockwell International, in 1978, charging that managers at the federal Department of Energy and Rockwell conspired to conceal leaks. Thirteen months later, the Energy Department's inspector general confirmed many of Stalos' charges, concluding that even if concealing tank leaks was not official policy, management deliberately obscured the information.

1985: Wheat farmer Tom Bailie, a local who feared that Hanford's radiation was poisoning the community, began crusading in 1985 to raise awareness about the "death mile" surrounding the site. Almost every household in it suffered from cancer or radiation-linked disease; Bailie's parents, uncles and sisters all had bouts of cancer, and he suffered from illnesses that caused "multiple surgeries ... paralysis ... thyroid medication, a stint in an iron lung, loss of hair, sores all over my body, fevers, dizziness, poor hearing, asthma, rotting teeth and, at age 18, a diagnosis of sterility," he said in The New York Times.

Under pressure from Bailie and others, in 1986, Hanford manager Michael Lawrence released 19,000 pages of previously classified documents recording many leaks, accidents and intentional discharges. In the so-called "Green Run" in 1949, for instance, government scientists working with "green" (incompletely cooled) uranium rods released radioactive iodine into the air to test equipment for monitoring the Soviet Union's weapons program. Over the years, Hanford spewed at least 1 million curies of cancer-causing radionuclides into the atmosphere – roughly the same amount released by both nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Armed with that information, more than 2,000 "downwinders" – people in the path of airborne radiation – have sued defense contractors, claiming that their exposure caused cancers and other illnesses. Some claims have been settled, with payments ranging from a few thousand dollars per victim to more than $500,000; others have been denied, and roughly 700 remain open. The federal government, which indemnified the corporations involved in the intentional discharges, has paid out more than $60 million so far.

1986-1987: Rockwell International safety auditor Casey Ruud, charging that his bosses ignored problems, revealed safety violations in Hanford's plutonium processing plants and testified repeatedly in Congress in 1986-'87. He described plutonium leaks into the river, poor tracking of plutonium around the site, unsafe design, improper welding and the risk of nuclear explosions. Once Ruud went public, other safety auditors also testified. Around this time, as the Cold War wound down, many nuclear weapons facilities were being phased out. (All U.S. production ended by 1990.) Ruud's whistleblowing was a fatal blow; the government ended plutonium production at Hanford for good in 1988.

Westinghouse International, which had replaced Rockwell, laid off Ruud in 1988; he filed a whistleblower complaint with the federal Department of Labor, claiming retaliation. Ruud also reported that he and his family were shunned by loyal Hanford workers in their community. He reportedly won a settlement from Westinghouse roughly equal to two years' pay, but the associated legal battles dragged on for more than 14 years. In the 1990s, Ruud tried working for the Washington Department of Ecology, and during that stint, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary persuaded the state to assign him to the tank farm cleanup. But after he was pulled off that task, he resigned, saying that the Washington Department of Ecology itself also failed to enforce cleanup deadlines or protect employees who brought up safety issues. Today, Ruud runs a microbrewery in central Washington.

Also in 1986-'87, another Rockwell employee, Ed Bricker, went public with his concerns about Hanford's safety problems, including dangerous fires that were kept secret. After constant harassment – he was forced to see a psychologist several times, intimidated by managers and threatened by co-workers – Bricker filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor. In 1990, that agency found that Rockwell, Westinghouse and Energy Department managers and employees had retaliated against Bricker in a concerted attempt to fire him. In 1994, Bricker reached a $200,000 settlement, with taxpayers covering that bill and more than $1 million in attorneys' fees. Meanwhile, Bricker changed tack to work as a Hanford radiation health physicist for the Washington Department of Health from 1991 to 2005. Eventually, however, he complained that the state agency was also harassing him for his safety warnings, and won a $240,000 settlement from it.

1989: In one of its dozens of critical reviews of Hanford, in 1989 Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office (which later changed its name to the Government Accountability Office), found that more than 700,000 gallons of high-level nuclear waste had leaked from storage tanks – 250,000 gallons more than the Energy Department had reported. Two years later, the GAO revised the total upward, to 1 million gallons.

1989: Gary Lekvold, an engineer in Hanford's security division, warned a local Energy Department boss in 1989 that security lapses might allow terrorists to steal plutonium. Lekvold was suspended, and then he complained that Hanford security officers were bugging his phone, staking out his house and tailing his car. In 1991, he sued Westinghouse seeking $33 million in damages, claiming harassment. The same year, the Energy Department's inspector general found that Hanford security officers possessed many illegal eavesdropping devices and were evasive about their use. "I've worked in electronics for 30 years," Lekvold told The New York Times. "I can recognize audible evidence that something is intruding on a phone line that shouldn't be there. I notice during important telephone calls with my attorney the clicking and the hollow sounds, like an echo effect. ... If you want to describe it as a police state, I think that's fair." Eventually, a federal judge ruled that Lekvold was not covered by whistleblower protections because he worked for a government contractor. (That loophole was closed in the late 1990s.) Lekvold settled his case for an undisclosed amount.

1989: Westinghouse Hanford Co. safety auditor Sonja Anderson warned the Energy Department's inspector general and Office of Nuclear Safety about waste-tank hazards in the late 1980s. Years of harassment and vandalism followed, Anderson said; her house was broken into more than 50 times, her phone was apparently tapped, and bullets were left by intruders. In 1994, the Labor Department found that Anderson was illegally harassed, and she accepted a settlement. Then she claimed that Hanford managers had destroyed documents relating to the ongoing downwinders' lawsuit. In 1996, she was laid off by her then-employer ICF Kaiser Hanford Co. She sued, but by the time she won, that company had folded.

1990: Westinghouse senior engineer Inez Austin refused to approve a plan to pump wastes from unstable underground storage tanks in 1990, citing the danger of an explosion. The company was in too much of a rush, Austin said. She was then reprimanded for being inefficient, transferred to an office in a funky trailer, and referred to a psychiatrist. Like Sonja Anderson, Austin reported break-ins and phone-tapping. She filed a whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor and was reinstated, but was marginalized in her new job, given little or nothing to do. In 1992, the American Association for the Advancement of Science honored Austin with a Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award "for her courageous and persistent efforts to prevent potential safety hazards involving nuclear waste contamination." She pointed out more safety problems at Hanford's waste-tank farms in 1995, and was fired the following year. She sued Westinghouse in 1997 and settled out of court in 2006.

1992: John Brodeur, a geophysicist pushing for better monitoring of the waste-tank leaks, was fired by Westinghouse in 1992. (The Seattle Times reported that Brodeur "pulled his Smith & Wesson pistol on a road-rager who tailed him into a parking lot. Police didn't have a problem with Brodeur defending himself with a weapon he was licensed to carry, but his Westinghouse bosses did. They fired him for violating company 'conduct standards.' ") The congressional GAO upheld Brodeur's concerns, criticizing managers for poor monitoring of leaks into the "vadose zone," the layer of earth between the surface and groundwater. The GAO noted that Hanford's "vadose zone programs receive limited funding, operate with out-of-date and uncalibrated equipment, and are not comprehensive enough to assess the migration of contaminants from tanks or in the ground."

Brodeur and Casey Ruud were recruited by Energy Secretary O'Leary in 1994 to monitor the waste tanks with a 100-person staff. Two years later, Brodeur and Ruud reported that leaking waste had reached Hanford's groundwater. The Energy Department disagreed and formed an independent Vadose Zone Expert Panel to disprove them. But in 1996, the panel found that the Energy Department was using bad data to reach the wrong conclusion, "best described by the old axiom: garbage in, garbage out."

In 1997, Brodeur was part of a Colorado-based Energy Department team that reviewed Hanford's waste-tank cleanup and vadose-zone monitoring and found continuing management failings. A few months later, the GAO again hammered the Energy Department's Hanford management for having an "inadequate ... understanding of how wastes move through the vadose zone to the groundwater."

Brodeur resigned from the Energy Department in 1999, to work on contract with grassroots Hanford safety groups. In 2006, he released another critical report, concluding that "DOE's method for detecting tank leaks is ... designed to avoid finding leaks." Today, he's a consulting engineer for Hanford-area construction projects, but he continues to watchdog Hanford.

1997: Two 1997 groundwater assessment reports by the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – which is operated near Hanford by the Battelle Corp. – conclusively proved whistleblower claims that tank-farm waste had reached groundwater, despite long-standing Energy Department denials. Managers were finally forced to admit contamination. The same year, the nation's largest publicly traded construction firm, Fluor Corp., fired 11 Hanford pipefitters for refusing to install valves on waste-tank pipes that contained higher pressure than the valves were rated for. In 2005, the pipefitters won a $4.7 million judgment against Fluor for wrongful termination.

1998: The Hanford Advisory Board – a nonpartisan group that includes neighbors, Hanford workers, academics and tribes – sent a warning letter to the Energy Department and the Washington Department of Ecology in 1998, citing a "lack of leadership" in the effort to deal with the waste in the tanks and achieve cleanup goals.

2005: By 2005, Bechtel was three years into its struggle to build a Byzantine, first-of-its-kind waste-treatment plant – a 65-acre complex called the "Vit Plant" because, as The New York Times explained, it will "carry on a process called vitrification, in which the wastes, some of which will be radioactive for millions of years, are dissolved in an extra-strong form of glass and poured into steel canisters, which are then welded shut." There were unforeseen delays and myriad problems with the plant's design, which the company was still working on, even though construction had already started. The waste is so dangerous, much of the plant is supposed to be remote-controlled, so people need not enter it once it's operating. An Energy Department review of the plant's problems found "nuclear safety culture weaknesses," including "weak discipline in procedure compliance; ineffective training processes; inadequate procedures in some areas; and inadequate questioning attitude." The GAO released two more critical reports within a year, calling for improved efforts to protect the river and manage safety and costs. In one example, the Energy Department allowed Bechtel to move forward with the treatment plant's design and construction using incorrect seismic data – a mistake that cost nearly a billion dollars and set the project back for months.

2006: More than 50 experts – led by veteran engineer Walter Tamosaitis, who had more than 30 years' experience in chemical and nuclear plants – raised 28 technical issues with the waste-treatment plant's construction in 2006. Tamosaitis' team warned that the proposed system for mixing the waste sludge and liquid for treatment – using "pulse jets" that operate like turkey basters, sucking in waste and spitting it out – might cause an explosion. The waste contains bits of plutonium, along with cesium and water, which form highly explosive hydrogen gas when mixed.

In 2010, Bechtel declared that the key mixing issue was solved, but Tamosaitis continued to warn of the risk of explosion and other safety concerns. His bosses then transferred him to a makeshift office in a windowless basement room in an off-site office building. Complaining that his role had been reduced, he filed a whistleblower complaint and sued the main subcontractor, URS Corp., as well as Bechtel and the Energy Department. Judges dismissed those cases on technicalities, but Tamosaitis has appealed, seeking to get his story to a jury. Other watchdogs confirmed many of his concerns, but in 2013, URS laid him off, calling it a cost-cutting measure. The Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business summed it up: "Tamosaitis argued there is a culture in Hanford and DOE in Washington, D.C., to ensure short-term, career-enhancing goals are met regardless of whether any shortcuts will affect how the glassification complex works a few years later – long after the constantly-shuffling leaders have moved to other jobs and don't face the long-term consequence of their decisions."

2010: New York-based ProPublica revealed in 2010  that Hanford workers were being exposed to beryllium, a rare element whose dust is toxic when inhaled. ProPublica documented several cases of retaliation against whistleblowers – including medical professionals – who fought to protect workers decommissioning old buildings that contained the poisonous material.

2010: Also in 2010, safety inspector Donna Busche – a nuclear engineer and health physicist working for subcontractor URS – testified about the risk of explosions, as well as other problems in the treatment plant, during a hearing held by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent federal agency. The Energy Department's top environmental cleanup official reportedly excoriated Busche in front of other URS employees, and Bechtel and URS executives pressured her to change her testimony. Busche filed a whistleblower complaint, but more than a year later the Labor Department still hadn't responded, so Busche sued URS and Bechtel, alleging workplace discrimination. The company was too focused on "meeting deadlines regardless of the quality of the work," the lawsuit charged. "URS and (Bechtel) management viewed Busche as a roadblock (and) sought ways to retaliate against her," including reducing her authority and humiliating her. The Safety Board acted on the evidence, recommending full-scale testing of the treatment plant's pulse-jet mixing system and better sampling of tank waste to determine what's in the tanks and how to deal with it. Busche's lawsuit is still in court; a few months ago, she filed a second whistleblower complaint, alleging continued harassment.

2010: Another frustrated expert, Donald Alexander – a chemist in the Energy Department's Nuclear Safety Division – went public in 2011 with similar concerns about the waste-treatment plant, including the potential for a nuclear explosion and irreparable, corrosion-caused leaks in the pulse-jet containers. Rick McNulty, president of Local 788 of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union of Hanford scientists and engineers, responded by sending stop-work orders to the Energy Department and Bechtel, trying to prevent them from welding the tops on steel containers for the pulse-jet mixers. "It's a classic case of management overriding technical staff," McNulty told the Seattle Weekly. The bosses ignored McNulty's stop-work orders, and he retired. Meanwhile, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board released a new report generally backing the whistleblowers, finding that "DOE Contractor Management suppresses technical dissent."

2012: Nuclear chemical process engineer David Bruce, who'd worked for various Hanford companies for more than 40 years, and URS senior advisory engineer Murray Thorson went public with their concerns about the waste-treatment plant in 2012, including the risk of explosion and the possibility that pipes might clog or corrode and leak. "This sucker is not going to run as currently designed, plain and simple, and a heck of a lot of people around here know it but are too afraid to speak up," Bruce told the Seattle Weekly.

Bruce and Thorson were among many experts worried about the "black cells" – huge concrete containers that enclose the steel containers that enclose the pulse-jet mixers. Both types of containers will be so radioactive that, if problems arise once they're operating, they'll be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to fix. A few months later, acting on a complaint from an unnamed whistleblower, the Energy Department's inspector general found inadequate testing and recordkeeping on the welds on the black cells' containers, and unqualified workers doing safety inspections. Shortly after that, the agency's Office of Enforcement and Oversight uncovered numerous federal safety code violations at the plant. A few weeks later, Energy Secretary Steven Chu assembled yet another team of outside experts to review troubles at the plant, which led to several more teams studying specific problems with the black cells. The Energy Department even halted construction of the plant's major portions for a few months, and the GAO issued yet another report criticizing the agency for ignoring "unresolved ... technical issues" while allowing Bechtel "to earn incentive fees for meeting specific project objectives even as the project's costs and timelines balloon far beyond the initially planned goals."

Also in 2012, the Energy Department's Office of Health, Safety and Security revealed that its survey of 140 Energy Department and contractor employees at Hanford found a "chilled atmosphere ... that discourages questions or safety concerns and promotes fear of retaliation for raising safety issues. ... Only 30 percent of all survey respondents feel that they can openly challenge decisions made by management. ... There is a strong perception that you will be labeled or red-flagged, and some individuals indicated that they were transferred to another area by their supervision after having raised concerns."

Fed up, Gary Brunson, the Energy Department's Hanford engineering director, filed an internal memo calling for Bechtel's removal from the project. A few months later, Brunson issued a full stop-work recommendation to Energy Secretary Chu, citing seven unresolved safety issues. Shortly after, Brunson resigned – in protest of agency inaction, insiders say.

2013: A confidential source in 2013 alerted Seattle's KING 5 TV news that a Hanford waste tank had suffered a series of hydrogen gas leaks, again raising concerns about a possible explosion. The TV journalists did a series of investigative stories, tapping whistleblowers, including Mike Geffre, who said that his employer, tank farm contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, and the Energy Department concealed information about a leaking tank for a year and then downplayed its significance. Meanwhile, the Energy Department's inspector general again blasted the agency and Bechtel for continued safety lapses. And a federal Environmental Protection Agency report faulted the Washington Department of Ecology for lax oversight: The state agency made inspections at Hanford, but notified the Energy Department up to a year in advance and limited the scope to specified areas. The EPA report echoed the complaints of current and former Department of Ecology employees, including hydrologist Alisa Huckaby, who said that the state's watchdogs also fear retaliation for speaking to the press or pressing safety issues that might impede deadlines.

Tom Carpenter – a lawyer who's been helping Hanford whistleblowers for more than 20 years, and now heads a Seattle-based group, Hanford Challenge, dedicated to that mission – arranged for six whistleblowers to meet privately with an influential watchdog, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden in February 2013. Under pressure from Wyden, D, brand-new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz agreed to meet with some of them at a hotel near Hanford in June. It became a typical Hanford whistleblower fiasco. According to Carpenter, first the Energy Department revealed the whistleblowers' identities, causing two of the original six to drop out. Several more whistleblowers decided to join the ones who remained, but when they entered the hotel, they found corporate representatives in the lobby, as if to further intimidate snitches. That caused a few more to back out; ultimately, a reconfigured group of six decided to risk it. They met individually with Moniz in a hotel conference room, for 15 to 20 minutes each. An Energy Department lawyer was also present, which some interpreted as another form of intimidation, and Moniz said little.

These meetings with Moniz were "unpleasant, stilted affairs with very little conversation – no one felt that anything was accomplished," says Carpenter. "And nothing happened from it, other than Moniz sending out a memo telling everyone to be nice to whistleblowers." Moniz's memo, released in September, said, "We must not deter, discourage or penalize" whistleblowers, but, according to Carpenter, "There was no follow-up, no acknowledgment that anything at Hanford would change." Two of the whistleblowers who met with Moniz actually reported continued harassment: One, Donna Busche, said that a consultant reviewing her performance called her "a human speed bump," and the other, Walter Tamosaitis, was laid off.

The corporations and the Energy Department "continue to go, 'Blah blah blah, we respect whistleblowers,' while continuing to engage in the most heinous behavior toward whistleblowers," Carpenter says. He estimates that he's represented more than 500 Hanford whistleblowers over the years, helping them come forward and trying to protect them once they do. It's a job he doesn't expect to end anytime soon.

An editor's note accompanies this story and sidebar, with the headline: "What do a biker bar and nuclear waste have in common?"

These stories were funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Ephraim Payne is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon, who covers a range of environmental topics, including sustainable forestry, farming and energy.

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor.