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.