The government’s multi-billion-dollar effort to clean up the nation’s largest nuclear dump has become its own dysfunctional mess.
For more than two decades, the government has worked to dispose of 56 million gallons of toxic nuclear and chemical waste stored in underground, leak-prone steel tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Site in southeastern Washington State.
But progress has been slow, the project’s budget is rising by billions of dollars, and a long-running technical dispute has sown ill will between members of the project’s senior engineering staff, the Energy Department and its lead contractors.
The waste is a legacy of the Cold War, when the site housed nuclear reactors churning out radioactive plutonium for thousands of American atomic bombs. To clean up the site — the largest such environmental undertaking in the country — the Department of Energy (DOE) started building a factory 12 years ago to encase the nuclear leftovers in stable glass for long-term storage.
But today, construction of the factory is only two-thirds complete after billions of dollars in spending, leaving partially constructed buildings and heavy machinery scattered across the 65-acre desert construction site, 12 miles from the Columbia River.
Technical personnel have expressed concerns about the plant’s ability to operate safely, and say the government and its contractors have tried to discredit them, and in some cases harassed and punished them. Experts also say that some of the tanks have already leaked radioactive waste into the groundwater below, and worry that the contamination is now making its way to the river, a major regional source of drinking water.
Some lawmakers say Hanford has been an early — and so far dismaying — test of whether Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, previously an MIT physics professor, can turn the problem-plagued Energy Department around through improved scientific rigor and better management of its faltering, multi-billion dollar projects. They have accused his aides of standing by while a well-known whistleblower was dismissed last month.
Meanwhile, DOE officials are now considering spending an extra $2 billion to $3 billion to help make the wastes safer for treatment. Doing so would delay the cleanup’s completion for years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated in December. DOE is already strapped for cash, due to the impact of the budget sequestration, likely to take billions of dollars out of its budget.
In an Oct. 9 letter to Moniz, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., demanded that he take new steps to ensure that the project’s technical and safety experts are well-treated. Four organizations have reviewed their complaints, he said, and “all have agreed that the project is deeply troubled, and all have affirmed the underlying technical problems.”
On Nov. 14, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told DOE’s nominee for general counsel at his confirmation hearing that he worries ”the message is out department-wide that when you speak truth to power and come forward and lay out what your concerns are, you face these kinds of [retaliation] problems.” If that’s true, Wyden said, “I think it’s going to be very detrimental to the safety agenda.”
A troubled past
Government officials and environmental activists agree that Hanford needs to be cleaned as soon as possible. But the timetable keeps slipping: Almost 25 years ago, DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington agreed to start turning the waste into glass by 2011. But in 2010, the deadline was extended to 2019 with a completion date of 2047.
The project’s problems mirror those afflicting many of the Energy Department’s largest engineering projects. The estimated cost of cleaning up Hanford ballooned from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $13.4 billion in 2012, according to GAO’s December report. The DOE halted much of the construction last year due to technical problems, and Moniz announced last month that the agency is likely to miss three more project deadlines.
The GAO has long criticized the project’s “fast-track” approach, in which workers — operating under a single, overarching contract — have simultaneously been developing technology, designing the treatment plants, and undertaking construction. The approach is meant to ease the integration of technologies and help ensure the projects meet its legal deadlines. But the GAO says it has led to cost increases and delays.
On Sept. 30, DOE’s inspector general issued an audit stating that Bechtel, the project’s prime contractor, had repeatedly made design changes to plant equipment without a required safety review. DOE inspector general Gregory Friedman called the problems “systemic.”
That report came 13 months after Gary Brunson, who was then the plant’s engineering division director at DOE, told superiors in a memo that Bechtel had made at least 34 technical decisions that were incorrect, infeasible, unverified, unsafe, or too costly, according to a copy. He called for the company’s removal from its role as design manager. Frank Russo, Bechtel’s plant director at the time, responded that the issues were not new and had all been addressed in concert with the department.
DOE’s Office of Environmental Management responded with assurances that Bechtel has already started to address these shortcomings, and promised to monitor the company’s actions. Although Bechtel has completed many impressive engineering projects, it is not new to construction snafus. Bechtel paid $352 million to settle a government lawsuit after panels of a tunnel in Boston’s enormously complex and expensive “Big Dig” highway project collapsed in 2006.
But Hanford’s problems extend beyond the missed deadlines, budget troubles and critical watchdog reports. Employees and independent agencies say that DOE and contractor officials overseeing the project have created a workplace climate that discourages employees from raising grave technical and safety concerns.
Many of the concerns center on the danger that liquid and solid or semi-solid radioactive wastes could settle to the bottom of tanks and piping during treatment in sufficient quantities to start a chain reaction, explode, and release deadly radiation.
But engineers and scientists working on the project have alleged that project supervisors have relentlessly pushed to shorten testing and “close” technical issues related to the mixing of the wastes by deadlines — meeting their benchmarks to gain financial rewards — before solutions had really been found.
DOE offers this explanation: When an issue is “closed,” says Carrie Meyer, a DOE spokesperson at Hanford, it means that the agency and its contractors have developed a credible plan to resolve any remaining problems. Speaking of the challenges of keeping the wastes adequately mixed, she said “there’s no way you would solve an issue of that magnitude” quickly.
In hindsight, she said, using the word “closure” “was not a good way to characterize it.”
The firing of a prominent critic
The most prominent of those alleging retaliation for raising concerns about the project’s safety is Walter Tamosaitis, the project’s former research and technical manager for URS, the prime subcontractor to Bechtel. He was dismissed in October, sparking new controversy.
Donna Busche, a URS employee and manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the plant who worked with Tamosaitis, described him as “extroverted,” “tenacious” and “aggressive but not in a negative way” — someone who was “very forthright in conversations, [saying] that, ‘This needs to be addressed.’”
Tamosaitis’s troubles began after a 2010 meeting with Bechtel and URS managers, at which he turned over a list of unresolved technical issues that he said could affect the plant’s safety. Two days later, URS, acting under orders from a Bechtel executive, pulled him from the project, according to a legal complaint Tamosaitis filed in federal court in November 2011.
His claims that managers repeatedly spurned safety warnings and resolved technical problems too slowly led to an investigation by department’s nuclear safety board. In June 2011, it affirmed that department and contractor officials on the project had instilled a culture that deterred employees from reporting their concerns.
Board chairman Peter Winokur said in an April 1, 2013, letter to Wyden that the department has “vigorously tackled this issue but progress in changing any organizational culture is historically slow.” On Sept. 27, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman told the board that his department needed more time to assess if workers were deterred from reporting problems at other sites and find solutions.
After Tamosaitis’s forced departure from the plant, he was assigned to a non-supervisory post in URS’s main office in downtown Richland. But five days after Poneman’s letter, URS managers told Tamosaitis — a 44-year company veteran with a Ph.D. in engineering — to clean off his desk there and leave that day. URS insisted — as a condition of receiving severance pay — that he give up the lawsuit he filed against the company. He refused.
In an interview with the Center, Tamosaitis, 66, said the layoff was “clearly retaliatory.” Tamosaitis said he was particularly surprised by URS’s decision, because three months earlier, he had met with Moniz to discuss his concerns about the plant’s design and safety culture. Moniz had promised at his April confirmation hearing to meet whistleblowers at Hanford.
“He was very receptive,” Tamosaitis said of the 20-minute meeting. “I was optimistic that, yes, indeed changes would be made.” Tamosaitis was also encouraged by a memo Moniz sent to department heads in September stating DOE must “foster a safety conscious work environment” that does not “deter, discourage, or penalize employees for the timely identification of safety, health, environmental, quality or security issues.”
After Tamosaitis’s dismissal, Markey and Wyden each sent angry letters to Moniz stating that it appears little has changed. Tamosaitis’s “termination within days of your pledge can only be seen as perpetuating a culture that would plunge DOE employees and contractors who dare to raise safety issues into the deep freeze or worse,” Wyden wrote in his Oct. 9 letter.
DOE officials did not respond to requests by the Center for comment about the letters or the dismissal. Wyden spokesperson Keith Chu said Moniz has not replied to the senator’s letter.
URS spokesperson Pamela Blum declined to say if DOE officials had contacted URS about Tamosaitis’s firing or Moniz’s June meeting with Tamosaitis. “There is very robust oversight of this project — including daily communication with our client — but our practice is not to discuss the specifics of our interactions,” she said.
Blum said in an emailed statement that, “While we will not comment on specific employee matters, in recent months URS has reduced employment levels in our federal sector business due to budgetary constraints.” The company, she wrote, “encourages its employees to raise concerns about safety, which remains the company’s highest priority.” She also said URS asks all laid-off employees to sign severance agreements absolving the company from legal claims.
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit in Seattle that has assisted Hanford whistleblowers, said URS “created the conditions” to lay off Tamosaitis. “He was turned into a symbol by them that this is what happens to people who raise concerns,” Carpenter said. “It’ll be a cold day indeed when someone tries to follow in his footsteps.”
Attack of the whistleblower
Hanford’s technical challenges have long bedeviled its workers and managers.
DOE scrapped its first three plans to dispose of the waste, now stored in 177 massive tanks, before hiring Bechtel in 2000. Its current plan calls for building a 12-story pretreatment facility to divide the low- and high-level radioactive wastes and pump them into separate plants, where they would be mixed with molten glass, and then poured and sealed into thick steel canisters.
Engineers are still struggling to find a way to ensure that wastes flowing into the pretreatment facility and the two separate plants — which have a consistency ranging from a broth-like liquid to a peanut butter-like sludge — are kept evenly mixed. Otherwise, the plutonium or uranium they contain — materials that can cause a chain reaction — could settle together and cause what’s known as a criticality accident, a burst of lethal radioactivity and heat. Hydrogen gas bubbles could also develop, become trapped in the waste, and explode.
According to the GAO’s December report, project engineers have struggled to design compressed-air, pulse jet mixers, because the technology has never been used to treat waste with large solids like those at Hanford.
Moreover, many of the new mixing tanks will be located in sealed chambers called “black cells” where radiation levels will be so high that workers will be unable to enter for at least 40 years. So the equipment must be able to operate without maintenance for that period. But some experts have raised concerns that the wastes will corrode the tanks and pipes more quickly than that.
After the GAO first expressed concerns about the plant’s design, Tamosaitis was appointed in October 2005 to head a study of it. More than 50 consultants participated, and they identified 28 unresolved technical issues. By October 2009, DOE had resolved 27 of the issues, but one remained: how to keep the wastes well-mixed.
In his legal complaint against URS and DOE, Tamosaitis said Bechtel’s plant director at the time, Frank Russo, pressed to “close” the issue by the Energy Department’s June 30, 2010, deadline. Meeting that goal would make Bechtel and URS eligible for millions of dollars in performance incentive fees. It was also expected to bring an additional $50 million in congressional funding.
In a June 30 email to Bechtel president David Walker, Russo said he told DOE officials that “a clear way to kill momentum within the project and with Congress re funding would be to declare m3 [the mixing issue] as not complete.” The next day Russo again mentioned the funding in an email to Walker, saying, “Declare failure and high probability that the $50 mil goes away.” Copies of the emails were filed with the complaint.
But Tamosaitis said he and other experts repeatedly raised their design concerns with Bechtel and URS managers. For example, in March 2010, Bechtel decided the pulse jet mixers only needed to move the waste around the bottom of the tanks, not force it toward the top. This approach, Tamosaitis said, increases the risk of plutonium particles collecting at the bottom and triggering an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
He compared it to stirring corn kernels in a pot: The cook has to make sure the corn is suspended in the water, not burning at the bottom.
Bechtel engineering managers responded by saying they would consider improving the design once the issue was deemed “closed,” Tamosaitis said in his legal complaint.“They were trying to justify their design,” Tamosaitis said, “but their design led to safety issues.”
Critically, in March 2010, Don Alexander, a senior Energy Department scientist at the plant, met with Bechtel, URS and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory managers and told them the material they had used to test the mixing of thicker, jello-like materials was not representative of the plant’s actual waste. In late April, Tamosaitis’s complaint alleges, Bechtel officials pushed back and “launched an effort to show that no testing was needed.”
After Alexander documented his concerns in a report, Russo directed Tamosaitis to put together a team of “top flight PhD’s” to discredit Alexander’s paper, according to a grievance Alexander filed with an employee union in August 2011. “Walt [Tamosaitis] knew my issues were technically correct and never submitted a paper.”
Bechtel spokesperson Suzanne Heaston responded that “in designing and constructing this complex facility, it is part of our process, when questions arise, for us to engage the appropriate expertise to address, respond and resolve issues.”
Similar disputes recurred repeatedly that spring, as management officials struggled to meet their deadline. At one point, Perry A. Meyer, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff scientist at the time who now works for the safety board, wrote a June 16 e-mail for the record relating “three potential threats I have heard” from managers towards technical staff.
In his e-mail, Meyer wrote that Tamosaitis reported he would be fired if the laboratory turned in a letter suggesting flawed test results, according to a copy. “He would like us to send the letter anyway, as he agrees with our concerns,” Meyer wrote, referring to Tamosaitis. The letter was indeed sent to Bechtel on June 25. Meyer declined to speak for this article.
At a June 30 meeting, the day of the deadline, Tamosaitis gave Bechtel and URS managers a list of 50 unresolved technical items that Bechtel had requested as part of what officials depicted in documents as a “clean out your drawers” effort.
A day later, Tamosaitis sent an email to Meyer and two other experts warning that Bechtel and DOE officials were likely to announce that all the mixing issues were being closed. Tamosaitis wrote that he anticipated an additional test “will go by the wayside.”
Then, on the next day, a URS executive, acting on orders from Bechtel’s Russo, told Tamosaitis to turn in his badge and cellphone, and escorted him off the Hanford site. Tamosaitis said he was not given a reason for his removal that day.
Tamosaitis’s federal court complaint includes emails that show Russo ordered his removal after communicating with Dale Knutson, DOE’s project director of the plant at the time. “Walt [Tamosaitis] does not speak for DOE,” Knutson said in an email to Russo. “Use this message as you see fit to accelerate staffing changes.”
Russo, after receiving Knutson’s email, sent a message to URS plant manager URS plant manager William Gay, stating that “Walt is killing us. Get him in your corporate office tomorrow.” Gay responded, “He will be gone tomorrow,” according to copies of the messages.
URS reassigned Tamosaitis to a non-supervisory position, unaffiliated with the waste treatment plant, in the basement of its Richland office. For 16 months, he worked alongside copy machines, Tamosaitis said.
Bechtel, URS and the Energy Department say that Tamosaitis’s removal had nothing to do with the technical concerns he expressed. In its response to a complaint Tamosaitis filed with the Department of Labor, Bechtel said Tamosaitis was demeaning to coworkers on multiple occasions.
Russo told the court in a deposition that he never saw Tamosaitis’s list of unresolved issues before transferring him. He said Tamosaitis had prior performance issues and was being reassigned anyway. Blum, a URS spokeswoman, said the basement office was the only available space at the time.
Tamosaitis’s lawsuits have yet to bear fruit. Judge Craig Matheson of Benton County Superior Court dismissed his case against Bechtel in January 2012 without comment. Then, Judge Lonny Suko of the Eastern Washington U.S. District Court dismissed his lawsuits against DOE and URS partly because Tamosaitis had not waited a full year for the Department of Labor to act on his case, a step the judge said was required by applicable statutes.
In his October 2012 decision regarding URS, he said Bechtel, not URS, ordered Tamosaitis’s removal, his pay had not been reduced, he had turned down URS offers of meaningful work elsewhere, and he had declined another office space. Tamosaitis said he was never offered a comparable position and URS only offered to move him to another office in the basement or to a cubicle on the first floor.
In his May 2012 ruling to dismiss DOE, Suko, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2003, said. “It is necessary to read quite a bit into Knutson’s [of DOE’s] email to describe it as a ‘directive’ to specifically remove Dr. Tamosaitis.”
A three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard his appeal of the case against DOE and URS on Nov. 7. A ruling is pending.
Going public with dissident views
Even if Tamosaitis’s firing resulted from an employment dispute, his complaint that rushed DOE and contract officials pushed aside safety and technical criticisms — and those who raised them — is supported by independent reports.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety board’s report concluded that his removal “sent a strong message to other WTP project employees that individuals who question current practices … are not considered team players and will be dealt with harshly.” It said Bechtel was behind Tamosaitis’s removal from the plant, and URS carried it out without considering the message it sent to other employees.
DOE’s Office of Health, Safety and Security, in a separate 2012 study, said it had found a “definite unwillingness and uncertainty among employees about the ability to openly challenge management decisions” at the Hanford plant.
At the direction of then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in 2011, Bechtel selected seven nuclear industry experts — including Nils Diaz, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and three others who had worked at the NRC, plus two former DOE contractors — to conduct its own study. The panel concluded in November 2011 that while “there is no widespread reluctance on the part of DOE, URS and BNI [Bechtel] project personnel to raise safety and technical issues,” managers had not addressed technical issues as quickly as they should have. It did not specify what those issues were.
Gerald Garfield, an attorney who specializes in energy and public utility law and was a member of the review team, told reporters on Dec. 1, 2011 that Tamosaitis’s public battle against plant management created “further anxiety and uncertainty” among people working on the project. But he depicted this mostly as a public relations problem, caused by inadequate advocacy by the government and its contractors.
Because officials did not explain their side of the story, he said, it led to speculation “that this was simply a situation where an individual had been treated very badly, and there was no justification … It emerged that there was an explanation … and I think when that was expressed by management, we were told by people on the project at least that it helped reduce anxiety.”
Other project managers say that raising safety and technical concerns has provoked retribution, however. Busche, a URS employee and the plant’s manager of environmental and nuclear safety, filed a lawsuit against Bechtel and URS in February claiming the companies retaliated against her for raising concerns about design and other safety issues — an allegation that the companies deny.
In her complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, Busche said that she was seen as a “roadblock to meeting deadlines.” URS and Bechtel officials excluded her from meetings and belittled her authority, she alleged; they deny it.
Busche says her troubles escalated after she questioned DOE’s judgment at an Oct. 7, 2010, safety board hearing about how much radiation might escape in the event of an accident at the plant. Board officials had expressed concern that DOE’s calculations underestimated the threat, but Ines Triay, then DOE’s assistant secretary for environmental management, defended the calculations.
When a board member asked Busche if she supported DOE’s method, Busche replied, “Short answer, no,” according to a transcript of the hearing. Afterwards, Triay told Busche if her “intent was to piss people off, [she] did a very good job,” according to Busche’s complaint.
Triay, now executive director of the Applied Research Center at Florida International University, did not respond to requests for comment. Busche’s lawsuit is ongoing.
Cleaning up the mess
In August 2010, the department announced that all the mixing design issues were closed. As a result, Bechtel and URS received more than $4 million in bonus funds. Congress also allocated $50 million in additional annual funding for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, according to GAO.
But problems persisted. In 2011, Alexander expressed new concerns that the mixing vessels could erode and spring leaks. Energy officials in late 2011 ordered Bechtel to demonstrate its pulse jet mixers would work properly, according to GAO. By that point, Bechtel had built 38 tanks with pulse jet mixers and installed 27 of them in the project’s pretreatment and high-level waste facilities — but it was not able to verify that all the tanks worked as designed and met safety requirements, the GAO said in its report.
Last year, the department halted construction on both the pretreatment plant and the high-level waste plant as it worked to resolve technical problems, including ensuring that the wastes are adequately mixed. Tamosaitis cited this move as proof that his technical concerns were valid.
Some independent experts have been urging the department to conduct further, small-scale mixing tests to avoid any accidents. Alexander said DOE and contract officials are planning a full-scale test to ensure the mixing vessels work appropriately. He said in a telephone interview that he’s pleased that the project is “doing what needs to be done.”
In an effort to restart the plant’s construction, Secretary Moniz told Washington State officials in a Sept. 24 report that his department and its contractors are working to settle lingering questions about the mixing of high-level waste slurries, among other issues. He said officials want to start encasing some low-level waste in glass while resolving other problems with the high-level waste treatment.
Bechtel spokesperson Jason Bohne said in a statement that Bechtel’s “focus remains on safely designing and building the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant to the highest nuclear safety standards. We remain committed to working with DOE to achieve the permanent solution for Hanford’s aging tank waste.”
Tamosaitis meanwhile says he is sorting through his papers and figuring out what to do next. “I want an environment where the foot soldiers can raise issues without fear they’re going to be put in a basement office for 16 months and then laid off,” he said. “This issue is a heck of a lot bigger than me.”
This article was co-published with NBC News, the McClatchy newspaper chain, Digital First Media, Salon, and the Huffington Post.