Nuclear cleanupOperator of Hanford nuclear disposal site fires scientists who voice safety concerns

Published 28 February 2014

The Hanford project in Washington State is the Department of Energy’s (DoE) largest nuclear cleanup project. DoE plans to transform fifty-six million gallons of radioactive sludge, currently stored in underground tanks, into solid glass. Scientists and engineers who work at Hanford have questioned the effectiveness of the required technology, and have voiced serious concerns about safety issues. Two of those who were the most persistent in voicing their concerns about safety have been fired, and a third one has left his job voluntarily.

Donna Busche, an employee of San Francisco-based URS Corp., who served as head of nuclear safety for the cleanup of the former nuclear weapons site at Hanford, Washington, was fired two weeks ago. She was told by company executives that she was fired owing to “unprofessional conduct,” but she insists she was fired because of questions she had raised over several years about safety issues at the site.

The company rejected the charge that she was fired as a punishment for her persistent criticism.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Busche is at least the third senior project official at Hanford who has been fired or who left under pressure after voicing concerns about safety at the $13.4-billion construction project. The project has been on hold for more than a year now after design problems were found.

“The Energy Department’s overall safety culture is broken and all they are doing now is sitting idly by,” Busche told the Times.

The Hanford site is the Department of Energy’s (DoE) largest nuclear cleanup project. DoE plans to transform fifty-six million gallons of radioactive sludge, currently stored in underground tanks, into solid glass. Senior scientists and engineer at Hanford have questioned the effectiveness of the technology required to achieve this, and DoE’s inspector general and other federal investigators have criticized the department’s management of the project, in addition to raising safety concerns.

Busche’s criticism during her five years of work on the project revolved around what she considered as the lack of safety in the design of a waste treatment plant.

The times notes that one of the other two senior officials who were let go is Walter Tamosaitis, the head of research at URS, who was fired last year after discussing with outside experts his concerns that a system for mixing waste in large tanks might allow explosive hydrogen gas to build up. The Times notes that the issue has yet to be resolved.

Busche had raised similar concerns. She told the Times last year that the current design for mixing waste at the project would not work.

Gary Brunson, DoE’s engineering division director at Hanford, sent a memo in 2012 to DoE officials which highlighted thirty-four instances in which San Francisco-based Bechtel, the prime contractor on the project and the design authority for the plant, had committed what Brunson charged were factual errors, pursued unsafe designs, or provided equipment that did not meet federal standards.

Brunson left his job voluntarily, but said DoE should remove Bechtel.

important part of the cleanup plant.

Busche filed a federal suit in February 2013, saying her warnings had been suppressed, that she had suffered retaliation for raising safety concerns, and that URS was working to fire her. The complaint followed a harassment complaint that Busche had filed with the U.S. Labor Department.

A DoE spokesman told the Times that URS informed the department that it terminated Busche.

“The department was not asked to and did not approve this action,” he said.

A URS public relations firm in New York, Sard Verbinnen, confirmed Busche had been terminated, but said the action was “unrelated to her purported concerns.”

“Though URS supports Ms. Busche’s right to raise concerns and to express her personal views, we do not agree with her assertions that she suffered retaliation or was otherwise treated unfairly,” a statement says. “Ms. Busche’s allegations will not withstand scrutiny, and URS looks forward to demonstrating through the legal process that the company and its managers acted appropriately and in full compliance with the law in their dealings with Ms. Busche.”

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz met with Tamosaitis and other concerned engineers and scientists when he visited Hanford last year.

Busche told the Times that not long after that meeting, Tamosaitis was fired by URS. She said that four other people who were in the meeting with Moniz have been fired, transferred, or forced out of their jobs.