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

Page 5

Also in 2012, the Energy Department's Office of Health, Safety and Security revealed that its survey of 140 Energy Department and contractor employees at Hanford found a "chilled atmosphere ... that discourages questions or safety concerns and promotes fear of retaliation for raising safety issues. ... Only 30 percent of all survey respondents feel that they can openly challenge decisions made by management. ... There is a strong perception that you will be labeled or red-flagged, and some individuals indicated that they were transferred to another area by their supervision after having raised concerns."

Fed up, Gary Brunson, the Energy Department's Hanford engineering director, filed an internal memo calling for Bechtel's removal from the project. A few months later, Brunson issued a full stop-work recommendation to Energy Secretary Chu, citing seven unresolved safety issues. Shortly after, Brunson resigned – in protest of agency inaction, insiders say.

2013: A confidential source in 2013 alerted Seattle's KING 5 TV news that a Hanford waste tank had suffered a series of hydrogen gas leaks, again raising concerns about a possible explosion. The TV journalists did a series of investigative stories, tapping whistleblowers, including Mike Geffre, who said that his employer, tank farm contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, and the Energy Department concealed information about a leaking tank for a year and then downplayed its significance. Meanwhile, the Energy Department's inspector general again blasted the agency and Bechtel for continued safety lapses. And a federal Environmental Protection Agency report faulted the Washington Department of Ecology for lax oversight: The state agency made inspections at Hanford, but notified the Energy Department up to a year in advance and limited the scope to specified areas. The EPA report echoed the complaints of current and former Department of Ecology employees, including hydrologist Alisa Huckaby, who said that the state's watchdogs also fear retaliation for speaking to the press or pressing safety issues that might impede deadlines.

Tom Carpenter – a lawyer who's been helping Hanford whistleblowers for more than 20 years, and now heads a Seattle-based group, Hanford Challenge, dedicated to that mission – arranged for six whistleblowers to meet privately with an influential watchdog, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden in February 2013. Under pressure from Wyden, D, brand-new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz agreed to meet with some of them at a hotel near Hanford in June. It became a typical Hanford whistleblower fiasco. According to Carpenter, first the Energy Department revealed the whistleblowers' identities, causing two of the original six to drop out. Several more whistleblowers decided to join the ones who remained, but when they entered the hotel, they found corporate representatives in the lobby, as if to further intimidate snitches. That caused a few more to back out; ultimately, a reconfigured group of six decided to risk it. They met individually with Moniz in a hotel conference room, for 15 to 20 minutes each. An Energy Department lawyer was also present, which some interpreted as another form of intimidation, and Moniz said little.

These meetings with Moniz were "unpleasant, stilted affairs with very little conversation – no one felt that anything was accomplished," says Carpenter. "And nothing happened from it, other than Moniz sending out a memo telling everyone to be nice to whistleblowers." Moniz's memo, released in September, said, "We must not deter, discourage or penalize" whistleblowers, but, according to Carpenter, "There was no follow-up, no acknowledgment that anything at Hanford would change." Two of the whistleblowers who met with Moniz actually reported continued harassment: One, Donna Busche, said that a consultant reviewing her performance called her "a human speed bump," and the other, Walter Tamosaitis, was laid off.

The corporations and the Energy Department "continue to go, 'Blah blah blah, we respect whistleblowers,' while continuing to engage in the most heinous behavior toward whistleblowers," Carpenter says. He estimates that he's represented more than 500 Hanford whistleblowers over the years, helping them come forward and trying to protect them once they do. It's a job he doesn't expect to end anytime soon.

An editor's note accompanies this story and sidebar, with the headline: "What do a biker bar and nuclear waste have in common?"

These stories were funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Ephraim Payne is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon, who covers a range of environmental topics, including sustainable forestry, farming and energy.

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor.

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