A whistleblower involved in the arduous cleanup and containment efforts at the nation’s largest site of radioactive nuclear waste will be meeting with members of Congress after a report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), a federal agency of nuclear experts tasked with making sure the country’s radioactive waste sites remain safe, declared that the safety culture at the site was “flawed,” and that a retaliatory animus toward those who raise safety concerns is common. Walt Tamosaitis, a high-level employee on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s cleanup and containment effort, was demoted to what he calls a “do-nothing” job just one day after he raised doubts regarding the safe functioning of a system designed to keep waste materials stirred. Tamosaitis’ became a champion and a symbol of larger structural problems on the site when DNFSB’s new report declared that in the workplace culture at Hanford today “individuals who question current practices or provide alternative points of view are not considered team players and will be dealt with harshly,” and called for “prompt, major improvement” which “will only be successful and enduring if championed by the Secretary of Energy.”
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the decommissioned 586-square-mile site of an atomic weaponry development and experimentation facility commissioned by the Manhattan Project in 1943 170 miles southwest of Spokane, Washington. The site housed the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, and also oversaw a series of experiments in nuclear radiation under the management of outside contractors E.I. du Pont de Menours & Co. and later General Electric Co. until it was decommission at the end of the Cold War. The mostly uncontained radiation in the first years of its operation is said to have caused cancer and other ailments in members of its surrounding communities uninformed of its operations, which is the subject of heated legal battles to this day. However, since its decommissioning, concerns over damages Hanford might inflict have continued, as the Department of Energy attempts to contain and neutralize the 53-million gallons, two-thirds of the nations radioactive waste left behind, making it the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. A plant designed to turn the waste into glass so that it may be stored underground is being built for $12 billion and is scheduled to be completed by 2019. The unsafe handling of these ongoing efforts prompted Tamosaitis’s and others’ concerns.
Before Tamosaitis, site workers and outside observers have made the case that shortcomings in the safety mechanisms of the site risk explosion or an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Attention has also been drawn to nuclear waste pipeways which risk such severe clogging that no known method could safely repair them. Other whistleblowers tell of similar experiences to Tamosaitis’s, for example a safety expert on the project who met resistance when he refused to comply with unsound design points and refused to back down described himself as “next in line” for termination.
Tamosaitis praised the DNFSB’s report, saying "I think this investigation really exposes the concerns that I've tried to articulate. I have a lot of concerns about the plant, and I'm gratified to see that they identified the same concerns. I'm glad to see that someone in the government has taken an interest in this." Tamosaitis continued “I think this letter sends a clear message to the contractors and the Department of Energy to say ‘Hey, there is something wrong there and you need to look into it.’ The letter by itself I don’t believe changes anything for me, but it’s more just affirmation of what I said a year ago.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Energy issues a statement on the DNFSB’s report, which said that “assuring a robust and effective safety culture at Hanford and all of our sites is an integral part of achieving our mission. We will be reviewing the recommendations from the Defense Board closely in the coming weeks.”