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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Hanford Whistleblower Investigation Folds With Few Available Documents

Anna King
Northwest News Network

A seven-month federal investigation into the firing of a top safety manager at Hanford came up inconclusive Monday.

It was supposed to reveal what really happened in the whistleblower’s case, and if her safety concerns had merit. But the Department of Energy’s inspector general said federal contractors at southeast Washington’s nuclear reservation refused to hand over documents.

Donna Busche was fired last winter from one of Hanford’s largest projects, the Waste Treatment Plant. Busche said she was harassed and dismissed after she raised safety concerns about the big factory that is intended to treat 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge.

But the report’s investigators said contractors Bechtel withheld 235 documents and URS withheld 4,305 documents and so it could reach no conclusion.

Busche said she isn’t surprised by that. She said the U.S. Department of Energy still doesn’t encourage questioning.

“And the [U.S. DOE] can have the rhetoric that we’re committed to a good safety culture and everyone can raise it, with no fear of reprisal,” Busche said. “It’s horse-hockey, it’s horse-hockey.”

Bechtel said it did allow the team to examine documents and conduct interviews with its employees. The Energy department said that it expects all Hanford workers to be free to raise safety concerns.


Reactions to the federal IG’s report today:

The U.S. Department of Energy

“DOE remains committed to safely and successfully completing the design and construction of the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) at Hanford. Fostering a questioning, safety-driven attitude among our federal and contractor employees is key to achieving our mission and safely delivering this important project. As such, the Department expects that its federal and contractor employees are able to work in environments free from retaliation for raising safety or technical concerns. It was in this light that the Office of the Secretary requested that the Department’s Inspector General (IG) review the circumstances of Ms. Busche’s termination. The Department acted promptly to produce all requested information in its possession, and regrets that the IG could not complete its review and provide an opinion.”

Contractor Bechtel

"We are disappointed in the language contained in the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General special review memorandum. Bechtel went above and beyond in cooperating with the Inspector General's investigation--providing requested documents for review and people to interview, in accordance with the protocol agreed to with the OIG.

Furthermore, we offered to work with the OIG to provide access to documents that are protected under the law, in a way that preserves those protections, but the OIG declined our offer. Donna Busche was a URS employee and the decision to terminate her employment was made by URS, as a URS executive confirmed in sworn testimony before a Congressional hearing. Bechtel is committed to providing a work environment in which all employees are treated fairly and are able to raise concerns without fear of retaliation--and Bechtel expects its subcontractors to do the same."

Government Accountability Project

“Despite the DOE's inability to address the important issues raised by Busche's unlawful termination, GAP looks forward to the outcome of the Department of Labor's pending investigation of her complaints.”

Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge

“This disclaimer by the Inspector General rewards contractors who are ignoring contract provisions and DOE requirements to cooperate with these kinds of investigations. If the shoe were on the other foot -- if it were Busche who refused to cooperate -- there is no doubt in my mind that the Inspector General would not have hesitated to issue findings against her. The Secretary of Energy is now in the spotlight on whether or not he will demand accountability from these contractors who have unilaterally asserted that they don't have to honor their contractual and legal commitments. In these circumstances, the OIG should have decided on the evidence available to them. In the end, this is another nail in the coffin for workers who, witnessing this charade, may decide to keep their mouths shut about serious safety concerns that could have catastrophic consequences down the road.”

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.