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 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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