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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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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.

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