The Hanford Nuclear Facility, with the dubious distinction of being the most contaminated nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere, was the focus of the second stop on this academic year’s American Whistleblower Tour. Last Nov. 29, GAP partnered with Hanford Challenge – a spin-off organization that works to protect employees of the Hanford Nuclear Facility – and Hanford whistleblower Dr. Walt Tamosaitis to bring a dynamic presentation to Whitman College, located an hour from Hanford.
Liz Mattson of Hanford Challenge set the context for the rousing discussion with a presentation about Hanford’s history – one shrouded in secrecy as the facility manufactured plutonium for atomic bombs. For over five decades, several hundred billion gallons of contaminants were released into the air, soil, and nearby Columbia River. While no longer producing plutonium, the facility is responsible for cleaning up the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive and hazardous waste that are sitting in 177 underground tanks … many of which are leaking and all of which are long past their designed lifespan.
Another important part of Hanford’s history is that of its whistleblowers. Since the 1980s, many employees have come forward about safety violations at Hanford, often resulting in outrageous forms of retaliation (one of the six stages whistleblowers often experience). Walt Tamosaitis worked as a Deputy Chief Process Engineer and Research & Technology Manager for the Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford, a government-owned, contractor-operated facility. Walt was terminated from the project by contractor Bechtel after raising concerns about issues that would impact the overall safety and operation of the plant. But he wasn't fully fired – just sent to a windowless basement, literally to do nothing – a clear message to other workers who might wish to speak out.
here and here), and prompted other high-level workers to publicly raise additional concerns about its plant safety. But Walt’s whistleblowing came at no small cost. He continues to face legal appeals that require marathon-level endurance and money, all while enduring isolation from management and diminished job responsibilities. Yet his desire to continue voicing concerns about safety problems and the hostile work environment experienced by workers who raise them remains undiminished.Walt’s whistleblowing, along with advocacy support from Hanford Challenge, has prompted federal agency investigations into Walt’s concerns. Those investigations found a broken safety culture at the Waste Treatment Plant, garnered significant national media attention (
The evening concluded with a video featuring GAP’s Legal Director Tom Devine discussing a petition drive demanding enhanced whistleblower rights for federal contractors like Walt to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was under consideration by Congress at the time of the event. Over 2,600 people signed the petition and significant whistleblower protections were included in the Act that was passed by Congress three weeks later, on Dec. 21, 2012, in part because of Tamosaitis’ Congressional testimony about his experience as a raising safety concerns. This tremendous expansion of whistleblower rights will help to safeguard approximately $1.9 trillion worth of government contracts, grants and reimbursements annually, and protect some 12 million federal contractors when they expose corruption, wrongdoing, waste, fraud, abuse, or threats to the public.
Walt’s appearance at Whitman was covered by local media. In addition, Walt was interviewed by GAP Senior Fellow and Tour Director Dana Gold for a video featured on TakePart.com, a leading source for socially relevant news produced by nationally-renowned Participant Media. That video is embedded below.
Whitman students and faculty expressed shock in learning about the nuclear legacy and safety risks posed by the plant, particularly with it being so close to Walla Walla. (Surprisingly, the dangers of Hanford are not regularly discussed, despite it being such an environmentally active community.) Students were grateful to Walt for his willingness to discuss his experience so candidly at this Tour event, in classroom visits, and a dinner with engaged members of the student body. Said one such student, “[the presentation] made me realize that we need more whistleblowers and that they make it possible for change to happen.”
Alison Glick is Education Coordinator for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.