RICHLAND, Wash. - A host of agencies and boards are supposed to be ensuring the safety of the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. But how thorough can their oversight be if the workers doing the research and design are afraid to speak up?
This month, the federal hearing on the Hanford project being built north of the Tri-Cities focused partly on workers' reluctance to report safety concerns. One subcontractor's high-level employee says he was dismissed for raising such questions. His story is online this week on the investigative website www.DCBureau.org
Dr. Walter Tamosaitis was the research and technology manager for URS Corporation until this summer, when he says he presented a list of almost 50 concerns, including the current state of the waste being stored.
"Out on the Hanford site, we have 177 waste tanks that have exceeded their design life. A third of them have leaked. What will happen with that material that's in the ground, and whether it pollutes the river 100,000 years from now, is being studied. Not a good thing."
Tamosaitis is referring to the Columbia River. The federal Department of Energy and subcontractors Bechtel and URS would not comment, because Tamosaitis has filed a lawsuit. However, Dan McDonald, tank waste disposal project manager with the Washington Department of Ecology, says they are familiar with the complaints.
"We know very well the scope of these issues; there are paths forward, in terms of technical and administrative views on how to solve these issues - and again, Department of Energy, Department of Ecology and the contractors are working closely together."
The watchdog group Hanford Challenge says this isn't the first case of a worker facing retaliation for speaking up. The group's executive director, Tom Carpenter, says the state can't afford any secret concerns about a project of this size and scope.
"This is a huge issue; it's one of the most important environmental remediation projects in the country and in the world. It's one of the biggest; it's one of the most complicated; it's first of a kind. The stakes are very, very high, not only for present generations but for future generations. So, we've got to get this right."
The goal of the Hanford plant is to turn radioactive waste into a stable form of glass that can be safely stored. Cost estimates for the facility have grown from $5 billion to more than $12 billion, and the timeline has stretched from seven years to 20.
Some of Tamosaitis' observations about pre-treating the waste are highly technical. Last year, the Department of Energy withheld about $3 million in payments to subcontractor Bechtel, over some of the same issues he raised.