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

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

  • 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.

Workplace Issues 

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.  

During the packed public meeting, the DOE, Bechtel, and URS officials began discussing the glassification project. The DOE officials included Ines Triay, DOE's nationwide cleanup czar until July 2011.

At the hearing, Busche gave the defense board a different technical answer than DOE officials on the physics of aerosol particles dispersing and falling to the ground. That angered Triay enough that she chewed out Busche afterward in a room filled with 50 URS employees, declaring that if Busche's "intent was to piss people off (with her testimony), (she) did a very good job," according to Busche's labor department complaint.

On Oct. 8, 2010, according to Busche's complaint, three high-ranking contractor officials — Frank Russo, Bechtel's glassification project manager, Leo Sain, a senior URS vice president, and Bill Gay, a URS assistant project manager — approached Busche one-by-one to ask if she would be willing to change her answer on the aerosol dispersion matter. "She understood their questions to imply she should recant her earlier testimony," Busche's complaint said. She refused.

Later, in January 2011, another of Busche's supervisors, Mike Coyle, told her "to stop putting technical and safety issues in writing to him, and to instead come to him in person with these issues, so as to avoid making a written record," her complaint read. In an interview, Busche said she believed this was to eliminate paper trails for future potential problems.

During the Tamosaitis case, In May 2011, Busche was deposed, identifying many of his technical concerns as valid.

Then in October 2011, Busche's superiors gave a "corrective action letter" for having one of her people run an errand for her while that employee was on a lunch break. She believes the letter was the start of a paperwork trail to terminate her. According to her complaint, another supervisor told Busche that "people want her fired."

"URS and (Bechtel) are currently engaged in retaliatory efforts in order to remove Ms. Busche from her assignment at URS," her complaint explained.

Meanwhile, Doss was working for WPRS in a separate part of Hanford's tank waste world, just west of  the glassification complex under construction. In Hanford slang, this spot is called the "tank farms" — home to the 177 underground tanks holding 53 million gallons of nuclear waste.

Doss began as a blue-collar tank farmer worker and rose through the ranks to a professional-level safety job in WRPS's environmental permitting division. Her clashes with her superiors continued after she reached an initial settlement with the company over a 2009 complaint about being retaliated against for raising safety concerns.

Towards the end of 2010, the first of several new disputes arose. Doss argued that rainwater catchment systems in the tank farms should be put on a state wastewater discharge permit. Her superior disagreed. Later, Doss filed a complaint when she discovered that on-call supervisors were not properly logging after-hours technical incidents. Her superiors promptly removed her from her after-hours on-call supervisory duties.

Then in January 2011, Doss was assigned to supervise permitting activities for 50 to 60 underground wells in the tank farm area that collected rain and construction-related water — potentially contaminated by flowing through radioactive soil. She soon discovered that no one could physically find these wells, despite previous supervisors having reported checking them annually for at least the last 10 years. Doss' predecessor in the post refused to cooperate with her in locating the lost wells.

Doss' immediate supervisor, Jack Donnelly, instructed her to pick the brains of Hanford old-timers, but after several months, she had found only 14 of the wells. Meanwhile, Doss' complaint alleges that Donnelly told her not to include him on emails and other correspondence on the matter, and not to approach him directly on the subject. Doss believes that Donnelly wanted to create as scarce a paper trail as possible. In June 2011, Donnelly formally took away Doss's duties and responsibilities, her complaint alleged.

On Oct. 3, 2011, she was officially laid off. "It was like a gut shot," she said.

According to Doss, she was one of only two employees laid off from her 30-40 person section and only five of her co-workers had more than 10 years of experience. Doss believed she had the second-most seniority.

In a written statement released April 28, the WPRS said that it disagreed with Doss' allegations and will contest them before the labor department. "Each WRPS employee is empowered and encouraged to raise safety and other workplace concerns," the statement said. "Ms. Doss was one of 244 employees who were laid off by WRPS in the fall of 2011 to align its employment level with project work scope and federal funding. Ms. Doss' raising of safety or environmental concerns was not a factor in her selection for lay-off." 

Both Bechtel and WPRS declined to speak in detail about Busche and Doss' allegations, citing ongoing litigation. Bechtel, URS, and DOE took similar stances when questioned in the past on Tamosaitis' claims.

Critics contend that the frequent turnover in top DOE and contractor officials — along with contracts with few, if any, penalties for mistakes — have created a culture that encourages turning a blind eye to bad news.

According to Tomasaitis, top officials at Hanford spend only two to four years at the site before moving elsewhere to continue their careers. Bechtel's Hanford operation has had five managers since 2001, according to Carpenter. That trend creates pressure for managers to look good while they are there, but makes it impossible to hold anyone accountable for the long-term consequences of taking design and safety shortcuts, which usually only appear after managers have moved on.

Tom Carpenter has been a long-time lawyer for Hanford whistleblowers, including all three of the current complainants. "There is no continuity there or in the Department of Energy," he said.

"We look at Hanford as an accountability-free zone," said Carpenter. "It doesn't matter how many screw-ups there are, there is always more money [to tackle the fix-it work]. They have contracts that don't actually penalize them for messing up." Carpenter cited a recent federal inspector general's report that reported that the DOE did not try to get Bechtel to refund $15 million for paid work that the contractor could not prove had been done properly.

As Busche describes it, Hanford contractors can make mistakes, watch costs rise, and see schedules delayed — and still be paid extra to tackle the fix-it work.

"There is no penalty for a contractor being wrong," she explained. 

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