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Ring the alarm: Hanford's lack of a nuclear safety culture

Three employees have filed complaints against the nuclear waste storage facility in the last seven months.
A Department of Energy warning sign at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

A Department of Energy warning sign at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Great Beyond (Tony Case)/Flickr

The B reactor complex, operating in the 1940s, was the earliest facility to turn out large amounts of waste at Hanford.

The B reactor complex, operating in the 1940s, was the earliest facility to turn out large amounts of waste at Hanford. U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

An ominous pattern is emerging at the Hanford nuclear reservation. In the last seven months two veteran managers have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that too many safety shortcuts are being taken in the creation of a complex to deal with Hanford's nuclear waste. The two join an existing federal lawsuit by a third high-ranking manager.

All three actions are filed against corporations charged with the eventual treatment of 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste in 177 leak-prone underground tanks in Eastern Washington — arguably the Western Hemisphere's greatest radiological and chemical problem. One manager has been laid off; one has been exiled to a minor job; and the third has hung on to her post.

Each complainant is a Hanford veteran — ages 45 to 64 — with decades of experience in her or his field. Each brought up concerns to their superiors about the safety of dealing with dangerous sludges and fluids, who allegedly downplayed their concerns — sometimes angrily. In all of these cases, dealing with these safety concerns would have slowed down work on a project that is already struggling. The current plan aims to build a complex to convert those wastes into benign glass beginning in 2019. 

At stake is whether radioactive wastes will corrode tanks inside the building devoted to preparing wastes for glassification, whether radioactive leaks or spraying mists will occur within that building, whether uncontrolled bursts of radiation will occur, whether hydrogen gases could cause flames or explosions that could damage pipes and tanks, and whether Hanford project managers and scientists understand the waste's chemistry enough to make sure equipment is up to snuff.

Looming over these questions is the fact that the interior of the glassification buildings will be too radioactive for anyone to actually enter. All repairs and modifications will have to be made by remote control. As outlined in an earlier Crosscut article, explosions, leaks and other glitches could stall glassification for years and add billions of dollars to the project's price tag

"They don't want to hear about safety complaints. It's all about production," said Shelly Doss, a complainant and now laid-off environmental specialist. 

The Players

The U.S. Department of Energy has divided the tank waste work into two parts: 

  • Contractor Washington River Protection Solutions is responsible for monitoring the 177 underground tanks to ensure that they don't leak (or, if they do, that they're safely contained), and for ensuring that the waste can be pumped to the glassification complex under construction.
  • Contractor Bechtel Hanford and subcontractor URS Corp. are responsible for designing and building the $13 billion complex, which will convert a major portion of the 53 million gallons of waste into glass. The glass itself will then be stored for 10,000 years, though at a yet-to-be-determined site. Loose ends still exist around how much waste that the complex will actually glassify and on what measures will deal with the remaining wastes. 

The three managers are:

  • Donna Busche, 49, is the manager for environmental and nuclear safety at URS. Her job is to anticipate and prevent nuclear safety problems. She filed a still-active labor department complaint on Nov. 10,  2011 against Bechtel and URS, alleging the two companies are trying to remove her from her post in retaliation for pushing inconvenient safety concerns. She is still in her post.
  • Doss, 45, is a former environmental specialist with supervisory duties at Washington River Protection Solutions. She filed a still-active labor department complaint on Oct. 27, 2011 against WRPS — 24 days after she was laid off. Before her dismissal, Doss had been employed at Hanford for 23 years. She alleges her dismissal was retaliation for repeatedly raising inconvenient safety concerns. 

She went through a similar clash at Hanford in 2009. According to the 2011 legal complaint, her bosses angrily excluded her from safety meetings and told her that her "future with the company was in doubt" for raising safety concerns at the site's tanks. That was settled in February 2010 with WPRS agreeing not to "retaliate" against Doss for pushing safety issues.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 17, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Monkey business as usual. The Hanford Dangerous Waste permit is up for comment until September 30th. Review the draft permit at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/nwp/permitting/hdwp/ . Contact Heart of America
www.heartofamerica.org for the many "details" not on the State website.
Also see www.hanfordwatch.org for even moreup-to-date info that Hanford managers don't wamt you to know about, and then submit your comments.

Posted Thu, May 17, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

"Doss' immediate supervisor, Jack Donnelly, instructed her to pick the brains of Hanford old-timers, but after several months, she had found only 14."

The significance of this datum of course depends entirely on how many heads were found. If, as I suspect, only 14 brains were found remaining among the couple thousand total heads belonging to former Hanford employees, then this would indicate an alarmingly high rate of deterioration -- each brain likely having a half-life of less than five years. It thus becomes imperative that the few brains still left be immediately donated to Science for further study before they too disappear from the face of the planet, or from Hanford, whichever occurs first.

woofer

Posted Thu, May 17, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Actually the "14" referred to is the number of old wells that she was able to locate, out of the 50 or so that were on the status list. The importance of this information is that the company had been reporting the status of these wells for many years...but clearly without even checking on the location of the wells, much less verifying the status of the wells for environmental compliance purposes.

Posted Thu, May 17, 4:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the update. I stand corrected. (I'm sitting, actually.) You might want to check out my comment on a previous article that at this point it would better sense to just leave Hanford alone and glassify the Tri-Cities instead.

woofer

Posted Thu, May 17, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Hanford Challenge has been tracking this issue for years. See our website at www.hanfordchallenge.org to learn more about the safety culture issues and the nuclear safety and environmental challenges posed by Hanford's ongoing cleanup.

Posted Sat, May 19, 9:24 p.m. Inappropriate

There is no shortage of people who can put their finger on the problem. What is needed is someone at the top who can turn it around and make this a successful project. It can not be successful if senior managers ignore or avoid confronting technical issues.

Where would the Nuclear Navy be if Admiral Rickover's organization acted like the Hanford Bunch? The USS Nimitz would never had made it.

FACTOID: The DOE senior safety manager slept through my 2002 ANS presentation (see my web site) on how the Nuclear Navy managed to build the USS Nimitz on time, using fundamentally different leadership and management than is currently in place at Hanford (both Bechtel and DOE). The chickens are coming home to roost, so I am pleased about that, but not so happy about the WTP and its failure to face reality.

Bechtel and DOE simply do not know how such things have to be done, and neither does the NRC. DNFSB is very good at identifying problems, and they like to use self-serving language like "They don't ALWAYS.." gag-me-with-a-spoon in their reports, but they don't know how to actually do the project right, either. NNSA is better since they tend to face reality (a lot of Navy people who work very hard and tend to face facts).

I may be the only one left from the Nimitz PRECOMMUNIT Reactor Department who is not yet retired, but it would take a Presidential Executive Order to get me to help these guys. All those SES's and Senior Project Managers and they still have whistle blowers coming out their ears. Does not happen in the Navy.

FACTOID: Does anyone remember Jim Stone from Rocky Flats Plant (1989)? He did DOE a big favor by warning about Pu in the Pu-building ducts, but he still lost his job despite the independent criticality safety team's discoveries and the report that proved him right. He died a pauper, ignored by DOE and the DOE GC. Hanford will not succeed under any of these people, and the whistle blowers will get screwed by Bechtel as well as DOE, as usual.

It is only a matter of time before Bechtel fails, gets fired, and another company gets to try it again. Technology is based on facts and reality, not on wishful thinking!

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