What do a biker bar and nuclear waste have in common?


This editor's note accompanies the HCN magazine cover story headlined: "The Hanford whistleblowers."


I made one of my first forays into investigative journalism back in 1982, when I was working for the Arizona Daily Star. A police raid on a Tucson biker bar had degenerated into disaster: When the cops burst in to arrest the bar's manager, who was in the very act of selling cocaine, the manager opened fire, killing one. The other cops instantly blew him away. As I dug into the story, some Tucson lawmen took the risk of telling me that their colleagues had made mistakes: The first ones who came crashing through the door, guns drawn, wore plainclothes, not uniforms, and didn't identify themselves as police. The dealer most likely thought they were robbers trying to grab both coke and cash.

The cops who spoke frankly to me were whistleblowers – insiders who become aware of problems in the organizations and systems they're part of, and then go public with their knowledge, often risking their careers, in the hope that lessons will be learned and reforms will be made.

Since then, other whistleblowers – sometimes speaking anonymously or off the record to protect themselves – have helped me investigate a variety of troubled systems, including how corporations and government regulators permit a shocking pattern of worker deaths in Western mines and oilfields. (That story – headlined "Disposable workers of the oil and gas fields" – can be read on the HCN website.) Just last week, I received an envelope containing evidence of troubles in an alternative energy project – insider information, sent anonymously because the bosses might retaliate against the sender.

This issue's cover story – about the nation's worst nuclear mess, at the Hanford site in southeastern Washington – describes the extensive role whistleblowers have played there. Hanford stopped manufacturing plutonium for bombs and missiles in 1988, but the subsequent cleanup of waste and pollution has been mired in mishaps, cost overruns and general mismanagement – posing risks to workers and the public. Without the hundreds of Hanford whistleblowers over the years, we would know a lot less about the cleanup, and it would probably have been even less effective.

Hanford's whistleblowers have fed some information to tough investigative journalists, including Karen Dorn Steele at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., beginning in the 1980s; Eric Nalder at the Seattle Times in the 1990s; and reporters currently at Seattle's King5 TV news station, who are producing a series titled "Hanford's Dirty Secrets." This gritty, ongoing reportage delivers an important message: The fundamental problem with nuclear energy – its incredibly dangerous waste products – remains unsolved.

The whistleblowers I've met wouldn't necessarily be good dinner guests; though undoubtedly courageous, they can be obsessive and tend to be sticklers for proper procedures. Sometimes the charges they make seem reminiscent of Chicken Little's "The sky is falling!" But they are working on behalf of us all, and we owe them our thanks.

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor.

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