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
 

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.

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