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Investigation finds ‘flawed’ safety culture at Hanford

A high-level whistleblower from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is meeting with members of Congress this week. The topic: the safety culture at Hanford’s $12 billion waste treatment plant. A new report backs up his claim that the Department of Energy and its contractors discourage workers from raising safety concerns.

Over the past year Walt Tamosaitis has been spending a lot of time in the basement.  That’s where he was transferred after he raised serious concerns about the design and safety of Hanford’s plan to treat 53-million-gallons of radioactive sludge. A year later a new report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board describes the safety culture on the waste treatment plant project as “flawed.” So this week, Tamosaitis isn’t in the basement, rather he’s meeting with members of Congress in Washington, D.C., with what he calls a “sparkle in his eye.”

Walt Tamosaitis:

"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.”

‘Unsound’ design

The board’s conclusion states clearly that the Energy department and its contractors discouraged, opposed or rejected without review safety questions by staff on the project. For example, another safety expert on the project refused to yield on “unsound” design points. After that he described himself as “next in line” to be axed.

Now some Hanford watchdogs wonder if the plant can be built at all. Tom Carpenter leads Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based group.

Tom Carpenter:

“We all want to see the waste treatment plant succeed. But we don’t think it will as long as there’s a broken safety culture and unaddressed safety problems. So, I think understandably there are a lot of political pressures and financial pressures on the project to show results to Congress. But that should not be getting in the way of making sure we have a safe and effective facility that is making sure that we clean up Hanford.”

Response to safety concerns

Department of Energy’s spokeswoman responded to requests for an interview with a brief written statement that says in part:

“… 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 ...”

Bechtel, the main federal contractor on the project, said in a written statement that their employees have said in independent surveys that they do feel comfortable raising safety issues.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recommended in its highest level of urgency that Energy Secretary Steven Chu take direct action and control of the treatment plant project. The plant is supposed to be completed by 2019 and come in on a budget of $12 billion. The mammoth plant is the only current government plan to treat 53-million-gallons of radioactive sludge at Hanford.



Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.

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