The Hanford Whistleblowers

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

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

    Jared Rodriguez/Truthout. cc via Flickr, adapted by HCN staff
  • Construction work at Hanford's B Reactor in the 1940s.

    U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)
  • Nuclear reactors lined the banks of the Columbia River at the Hanford Site, shown in 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world's first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance.

    DOE
  • Cleanup workers survey a tank buried for years in a Hanford trench, readying it for removal.

    DOE
  • Mushroom cloud after Fat Man, an atomic bomb containing plutonium from Hanford, exploded over Nagasaki in 1945.

    National Archives image (208-N-43888)
  • Farmer Tom Bailie raised the alert about the "death mile" that surrounded Hanford in 1985.

    Kate Brown
  • Ed Bricker says Hanford managers "were so desperate for plutonium that when things went wrong, they would accuse employees of sabotage, rather than address the problems with the facility itself."

    Beth Sanders/Athena Video Arts, cc via Vimeo
  • Hanford's B Tank Farm, under construction during World War II. These single-walled tanks are among those that have leaked.

    DOE
  • Casey Ruud shows a slide of his meeting with then-Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary in 1993.

    Hanford Challenge
  • Construction continues on the 65-acre complex that will attempt to treat Hanford's worst nuclear and chemical waste. The 12-story-tall plant is intended to handle the most radioactive waste; the complex will have more than 800,000 linear feet of piping for transporting it.

    Bechtel
  • Whistleblower Walter Tamosaitis raised 28 technical issues with a waste-treatment plant's construction in 2006.

    Rajah Bose
  • John Swain, center, shown with his grandsons Brentten and Elvin Hawkins, is among the former Hanford workers who suffer lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium. Swain, profiled by ProPublica in 2010, said the job left him with asthma as well as brain and nerve damage.

    Leah Nash
  • Donna Busche, who sees a risk of explosions at Hanford, has filed two whistleblower complaints charging that bosses have retaliated against her.

    Hanford Challenge
  • DOE chemist Donald Alexander, shown here on the banks of the Columbia River in Richland, warned of a possible nuclear explosion at the Hanford waste-treatment plant.

    Anna King/Northwest News Network
  • Murray Thorson is a Hanford engineer who worries that the waste-treatment plant might explode or spring leaks.

    Rajah Bose
  • Lawyer Tom Carpenter, shown on the Columbia River with Hanford buildings in the background, has helped hundreds of whistleblowers navigate the legal process in disputes over what he calls "heinous behavior" of bosses.

    Jackie Johnston/ProPublica
  • Whistleblower Michael Geffre, right, at the Hanford tank farm just before he resigned last November. With Geffre is longtime coworker – and continuing supporter – Greg Sullivan, who still works as a nuclear process operator at Hanford.

    Michael Geffre
 

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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.

chris  keahon
chris keahon
Feb 05, 2014 10:47 AM
Apparently Bechtel(and US Government) have a budget for settling with whistle blowers. Unfortunately, it is not news that the US Government and Corporations do not care about the health and well being of anything other then their own profit.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Feb 13, 2014 05:47 PM
I just read this article in the print magazine. What an awful situation. The complete lack of concern for the health of employees, locals, and the environment is appalling. For what? To save some egos and government-contract faucet flowing for the corporations?
Judith Nies
Judith Nies Subscriber
Feb 18, 2014 02:47 PM
A decade or so ago I read the book Atomic Farmgirl by Teri Hein who grew up 100 miles north of the Hanford facility and wrote about the cancers and leukemia that afflicted residents of that otherwise rich and bucolic farmland. These personal accounts of what has happened to whistleblowers is horrifying. Outrage is such a weak word. JN