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.