The Hanford Nuclear Facility located in southeast Washington state was opened just after the end of World War II. The purpose of the facility was to enrich plutonium used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and bombs. The plant was run by the government for 45 years in secrecy.
The location in the city of Richland was chosen due to its proximity near the Columbia River, which provided an abundant water source necessary to cool the nuclear fuel rods. The river is one of the longest rivers in the United States, providing power to the Pacific Northwest and a home to many fish runs. Portland, Oregon is a mere 200 miles downstream from the Hanford site.
In the 1980s, it was revealed that the plant is a horrible and deadly threat to wide-ranging communities and the environment. The Hanford program turned into one completely dedicated to clean-up and remediation. Tragically, contaminated material seeped through waste storage tanks into the ground over the years, making a large portion of the area radioactive and unsafe. Parts of the river have also been contaminated, with long-term effects still unknown. Workers hired by contractors to clean up this nuclear burial ground encountered barrels of leaking nuclear materials, radioactive rods, and many other unimaginable objects. Most disturbing, however, is that workers who raise questions of safety and proper procedure at Hanford are continually threatened by supervisors.
There are 177 underground tanks at Hanford containing 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste. This is a direct threat to the millions of people living downstream from Hanford, because:
- 149 of the tanks are “single-shell,” and thus more prone to leaking
- Some tanks are more than 50 years old, and all are decades beyond their design life
- Nearly half of the single-shell tanks have leaked one million gallons of hazardous, radioactive liquid into the soil
- Waste has reached the groundwater and river at a point 200 miles upstream from Portland.
Over the course of monitoring Hanford for over 20 years, several major safety issues from whistleblower disclosures came to GAP from concerned workers. Some highlights include:
In June 2005, GAP released a report showing previously unknown measures of radioactivity around the perimeter of Hanford. The study includes the first reports of plutonium in Columbia River marine life. Additional findings included evidence that radiation levels in mulberry trees are higher than previously reported, strontium-90 has entered the ecosystem in alarmingly high levels, and that contamination is much more geographically widespread than previously thought. The seriousness of these findings was contrasted by the fact that the Department of Energy did, to that point, not place a priority on testing conditions outside of the Hanford perimeter in places where the public is allowed to fish and recreate.
In addition to plutonium being found for the first time in fish, increased levels of strontium, mercury, beryllium, uranium, and cesium were detected in aquatic creatures. It was also found that mulberry leaves from the shoreline of the Columbia River at the Hanford perimeter are toxic, providing strong indication that the mulberries themselves are of great concern. Also, an area of the Columbia River 20 miles upstream from the Hanford site contained high uranium readings.
One proposed solution for solving the Hanford tank waste problem was to build the world’s largest radioactive waste vitrification plant. Vitrification is a process by which the radioactive waste is blended with glass at extremely high temperatures. This plan was enacted for two reasons – to make the waste solid, so as not to leak, and to make the waste potentially more easily transportable.
This current plan was enacted in 1996, and is the fourth total attempt at a Hanford vitrification plant. This facility originally was projected to cost $5.6 billion dollars to build, with an additional $45-$60 billion more to operate it for 28 years (see update above). The budget has exploded in cost since its inception (as of 2010, the minimum total cost for building is set at $12.2 billion). The plant was also originally to begin interim operations by 2007, and in full production of radioactive glass logs by 2011. This has been indefinitely delayed. One major problem with the plant is a lack of transparent oversight. The process is locally controlled by the Office of River Protection, which is a subset of the Department of Energy. For this project and others, the DOE previously worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent agency established by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 to regulate civilian use of nuclear materials.
In May 2006, GAP released several documents exposing gross managerial wrongdoing and incompetence at the vitrification plant. The documents indicate that the Department of Energy (DOE) and the contractor in charge of cleanup at the site, Bechtel, knowingly installed defective equipment that is supposed to contain high-level nuclear waste. That, and numerous other actions, endangered the citizens of the Pacific Northwest.
The installation of one known defective vessel (timeline) was the result of Bechtel’s rush to receive a $15 million fee for meeting a deadline, coupled with a complete lack of oversight by DOE. This was only to be followed months later by another DOE payment to Bechtel of $22 million for Bechtel’s use in taking steps to combat its own negligence and incompetence. GAP’s efforts led to a major media spotlight on the issue, including a 60 Minutes piece.
Regrettably, this is not the first time that the vitirifcation plant had come under harsh criticism. When the project originally began, the DOE approved a “fast track” approach to the project. This decision has proven to be a disaster. Equipment installed by Bechtel has consistently failed to meet specifications, causing a serious threat to the safety of the general public. A total lack of foresight has left the plant vulnerable to an earthquake. Given the fact that Hanford is close to one of the world’s most active fault lines, such poor planning is inexcusable. This mistake alone raised the plant construction budget from approximately $6 billion to $10 billion.
The Hanford Pipefitters Case
One story of workers standing up against unsafe practices at Hanfrod personifies exactly the kind of retaliation and long-standing dangers that nuclear whistleblowers face in coming forward – the pipefitter case.
The story begins in 1997. For months, seven Hanford pipefitters, led by foreman Randi Walli, raised concerns about the continuing failure of tank farm pipes to meet basic safety requirements. The tank farms, again, held 53 million gallons of high-level nuclear and toxic waste underground, and have been documented on numerous occasions as leaking into the surrounding environment.
In May 1997, Walli's crew was told to install and test a valve into a system carrying high-level nuclear waste. However, this valve was known to be unsafe, because it was under-rated for the stated pressures. If the pipes failed, it would risk serious injury or death for those in the vicinity, potentially spread contamination, and jeopardize the structural integrity of the storage tanks. The crew refused to install the valve, and all seven were laid off the next day.
With GAP's help, these seven pipefitters charged Fluor Hanford and Fluor Federal Services, the DOE contractors, with whistleblower retaliation in August 1997. Two months later, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruled in their favor – and the two Fluors appealed. The day before the scheduled appeals hearing, however, the companies retreated from this position, agreeing to reinstate the pipefitters and settle lost wages.
However, the company laid off seven other pipefitters to allegedly make room for the returning workers. One Fluor Federal Services executive spread a lie that the original seven had agreed to this as part of their reinstatement. Other workers, believing the rumor, were upset at the returning crew for agreeing to dump their union brothers. This created hostility, which quickly spiraled into retaliation. In deposition testimony, a Fluor manager testified that these workers let go to make room, did not need to be dismissed, and that he was threatened by another manager to not to reveal this information.
In October 1998, five of the original pipefitters were laid off again. Several other witnesses were subsequently laid off or terminated after testifying in support of the pipefitters, or even for being too closely associated with them. In May 2001, these five, along with six others, were back in court leveling new charges of whistleblower retaliation.
This round of lawsuits changed venue, switching from administrative to State Superior court in Richland. This court delayed the original trial date in 2001 on its own motion. The trial was again delayed in 2002. This same judge made a series of damaging rulings that were appealed – each of which was consequently overturned. One ruling that involved whether the pipefitters were obliged to only use union grievance procedures went to the Washington Supreme Court, followed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court denied review, effectively endorsing the Washington State Supreme Court’s conclusion. Foreman Randi Walli also testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the case in 2002.
FOIA requests reveal that the government has reimbursed contractors Fluor Hanford and Fluor Federal Services at least $3 million in legal costs associated with the case, with the actual amount increasing substantially in all likelihood.
At the same time, Fluor Hanford actively blocked the Hanford Joint Council (HJC), a mediation body at Hanford with a 100 percent success record in resolving whistleblower disputes, from taking the pipefitter cases for mediation. The pipefitters had approached HJC, seeking its services.
Before the trial began, Fluor Hanford was dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit, leaving Fluor Federal Services as the sole defendant.
The long-awaited trial in the case of 11 Hanford pipefitter whistleblowers started on July 18, 2005, and ended in complete victory on September 2, 2005. All 11 whistleblowers were victorious in their claims against Fluor Federal Services. The Washington State Supreme Court later upheld the decision, effectively ending an 11-year legal struggle for justice by these brave workers.
Videos and Hanford Challenge
Blowing the Whistle on Hanford is a video GAP produced in the late 1990s which provides insight into GAP's efforts to prevent nuclear disaster in Washington state. Slightly under ten minutes in length, the video provides a quick history of the Hanford plant, followed by conversations with Hanford whistleblowers who have faced retaliation for speaking the truth. This video is hosted by courtesy of Free Speech TV, which also airs GAP’s television program, Whistle Where You Work.
In early 2008, GAP’s then-Nuclear Oversight program spun off to become its own organization, Hanford Challenge, which continues to address these Hanford-specific issues today. GAP continues to represent whistleblowers in all areas, though, including nuclear power and cleanup.