For the last year federal nuclear regulators have been in a battle with the U.S. Department of Energy. The debate is over whether the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s waste treatment plant is safe enough.
The other big question is whether Hanford workers feel they can 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.
Anna King reports on Walt Tamosaitis’ year as a whistle blower.
About a year ago, Walt Tamosaitis worked in a comfy office in downtown Richland.
Tamosaitis describes it “... on the second floor and the one end of it was almost a full glass window ....”
Now, a year later, “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. It’s now 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.
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,” according to Tom Carpenter. He leads the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge.
He points out that the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has strongly 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.”
The U.S. Department of Energy that manages Hanford said in a recent letter that the treatment plant is safe and its workers are free to raise safety concerns.
Nonetheless, standing up to the federal government and its contractors has taken its toll on Tamosaitis. His attorney told him to keep remarks on that topic very brief.
But Tamosaitis did tell me this, “Really finding out who your friends are is the biggest learning experience....”
“Have you guys lost support or friends this past year?” I asked.
“Let me answer that directly. Yes we have. That’s been very shocking in many cases. On the other hand, others have stepped up and may have been an acquaintance before but are now they’re great friends,” Tamosaitis says.
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 says.
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,” says Tamosaitis.
After our interview, Tamosaitis hurried over to flip on some baseball.
Watching his favorite college team South Carolina is one way he can unwind. The game, as it turns out, is akin to his life ahead.
“Zero, zero in the second inning. There’s a long time to go and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Tamosaitis says.