Nov. 22, 2011: Possible Whistleblower Retaliation, Unsafe Operations at Hanford Nuclear Waste Plant

Senior scientists, safety officials demoted, reprimanded after raising serious safety concerns to agency and contractors
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) today sent a letter to Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu inquiring about serious safety concerns at the Hanford Nuclear Site’s Waste Treatment Plant (WTP), the nation’s most expensive environmental remediation effort. Several senior scientists and safety officials have repeatedly raised concerns about the potential for catastrophic failures of the technologies to be used for the handling of high-level nuclear waste at the Hanford site, as well as about the potential for hydrogen explosions and radioactive releases in the event of a serious accident. For their efforts, staff were demoted, reprimanded or ignored.
Despite an extensive investigation by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) into the matter that found that the “safety culture at WTP is in need of prompt, major improvement” and that staff who raise safety concerns “will be dealt with harshly”, DOE continues to assert the inaccuracy of the technical concerns raised by staff and disagrees with the findings of the DNFSB’s investigation. Yesterday, DOE announced that due to unresolved technical issues and new risks, the project might not meet its court-mandated deadline, that the budget could increase $900 million to the already $12.2 billion cost for the project, and that the Department’s rating for the project would be downgraded from its current “yellow” to “red”, meaning that they believe that the project is highly likely to miss additional deadlines or cost milestones.
“DOE seems to be more interested in paying contractor fees than in paying attention to safety concerns or to those who are disciplined for raising them,” said Rep. Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over DOE management. “The Hanford nuclear site already has a history of leaking radioactive waste into the water. Its environmental legacy must not be further tarnished by catastrophic safety failures causing radioactive releases and a record of shooting the nuclear safety messengers.”
The letter can be HERE. Rep. Markey has asked DOE to respond to a series of question that include:

  • How does DOE plan to address the safety questions raised by the whistleblowers and other experts?
  • How does DOE plans to address the specific cases where those reporting safety concerns were retaliated against as well as the broader safety culture problems that exist at the facility?
  • What are the new costs and timelines associated with the project?

The response from the Department of Energy to Rep. Markey's letter can be found HERE