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Tamosaitis talks about life after blowing the whistle on Hanford

RICHLAND, Wash. – For the last year federal nuclear regulators have been in a battle with the U.S. Department of Energy. The debate? Whether the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s waste treatment plant is safe enough.

The other big question is whether Hanford workers feel safe to raise concerns without fear of retaliation.

The man at the center of this battle is a well-respected nuclear engineer who used to help manage the design of the waste treatment plant ... that is until he stood up and said there were serious problems there.

About a year ago, Walt Tamosaitis worked in a comfy office in downtown Richland on the second floor surrounded by windows.

A year later

Now a year later, Tamosaitis says:

“The office I have now is in the basement. It’s a small office and has a production printer in it.”

It’s a long way to fall from directing a $500 million budget. His team worked on the technical design of the waste treatment plant. That’s a massive complex of government factories meant to treat 53-million-gallons of radioactive waste currently stored in aging, underground tanks.

Days after Tamosaitis raised concerns about the plant, his security badge was stripped. He was escorted out of the building.

Broken safety culture

Soon after, he went public. He said the federal government and its contractors have a safety culture that’s broken. Tamosaitis said if things go wrong in the mixing vessels of the plant – consequences could be dire.

“Walt is one of the most important whistleblowers I’ve ever worked with at Hanford, and I’ve been working with whistleblowers since 1987,” said Tom Carpenter, a leader in the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge.

Carpenter points out that the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has backed up Tamosaitis’ allegations.

“This is a guy who has 40 years of experience, a Ph.D., a very high level manager. And he took a very important stand for safety out there. And to make sure that this plant – the issues and the problems – were addressed,” Carpenter said.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in a recent letter that the treatment plant is safe and its workers free to raise safety concerns.

The price he's paid

Nonetheless, standing up to the federal government and its contractors has taken its toll on Tamosaitis.

“Really finding out who your friends are is the biggest learning experience,” he said, keeping his remarks brief on advice of his attorney.

He added, however, that he has lost support and friends this past year since blowing the whistle.

“That’s been very shocking in many cases. On the other hand, others have stepped up and may have been an acquaintance before and now they’re great friends,” Tamosaitis said.

David Colapinto says life as a whistleblower can turn crushing over time. He’s a lawyer who specializes in nuclear industry whistleblowers in Washington, D.C.

“Career changes, family strife, some people end up in divorce, others end up in financially destitute. These are some of the things that can result from blowing the whistle,” Colapinto said.

But a year after taking on this new role, Tamosaitis has two lawsuits pending, has met with members of Congress and is trying to keep the consequences on his family to a minimum.

“In my heart and through prayer I believe I did the right thing and I would do it again,” he said.

Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio

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.