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.
- Walt Tamosaitis, 64, is a former engineering team leader for URS, tasked with eliminating design problems in the 38 tanks dedicated to mixing nuclear waste prior to glassification. Bechtel and URS needed to fix the tanks' design problems by a June 30, 2010 deadline in order to receive a $5 million federal payment. When Bechtel, URS and the DOE proclaimed that deadline was met, Tamosaitis vehemently protested that numerous design issues were still unresolved. Even now he is adamant that they remain unresolved.
In July 2010 URS sent Tamosaitis to his current minor procurement job, saying he was no longer needed on the glassification project. Tamosaitis filed a state lawsuit against Bechtel and URS, alleging he was retaliated against, which a superior court judge dismissed. In November 2011, he filed a similar lawsuit in federal court against DOE and URS. A federal technical advisory board agrees that many design issues still need to be fixed.
Busche and Tamosaitis' work focused on a building that will hold 38 tanks to mix the wastes into fluids and sludges that can be glassified — although Busche's responsibilities also included other parts of the complex. Both contended that pressure to meet design and construction deadlines has outweighed concern for equipment safety on the project.
"Beginning in 2010, [URS' and Bechtel's] focus moved away from nuclear and environmental safety compliance and toward meeting deadlines regardless of the quality of the work. In this atmosphere, Ms. Busche was viewed as a roadblock to meeting deadlines, rather than a valuable check against noncompliance, and managers sought ways to retaliate and to circumvent her efficacy," Busche's complaint reads.
In early 2010, Busche attended a few meetings where Tamosaitis stressed that a few dozen mixing-tank design troubles would not be fixed by the June 30, 2010 deadline. "I'm going 'Uh Oh' in my brain," Busche said. "He had very valid technical concerns."
After Tamosaitis was exiled to procurement in July 2010, Busche took responsibility for upholding his concerns. She planned to conduct further research to analyze the hazards he had outlined; a plan that got her into trouble with one of her superiors — Greg Ashley. She and Ashley argued about whether she should do the study, but Busche left Ashley's office vowing that she would.
Another disagreement had erupted between Busche and her supervisors a month earlier, when she advised that the building with the 38 mixing tanks — dubbed the "pretreatment plant" — be designed to prevent radioactive mists and dust from reaching the Columbia River. Her superiors wanted that standard limited to protecting workers in just the immediate area, a disagreement that produced similar chain-of-command arguments.
When the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board — the Washington, D.C. federal advisory body that double-checks DOE's cleanup plans and that has publicly agreed with Tamosaitis' design concerns — outlined 23 questions Hanford's cleanup crew needed to address prior to an Oct. 7-8, 2010 public meeting in Kennewick on the subject, Busche helped write some of the responses. But when two of her superiors changed some of her information, she refused to sign the formal response document, forcing them to revert back to her original wording.
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