Local

Whistleblower Discusses Safety Concerns At Hanford

Northwest News Network | Aug. 9, 2010 9:26 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:07 a.m. | Richland, WA

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A former upper level manager working on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s vitrification plant project claims he lost his position after raising concerns about the plant’s safety. Walter Tamosaitas says the plant won’t work as designed, but that top management is pushing ahead anyway. His claims have launched several top-level federal investigations. Anna King was the first to get Tamosaitis to talk publicly.


Until very recently Walter Tamosaitis was working to help build Hanford’s $12 billion vitrification project in south central Washington. But early on the morning of July 2nd — after 40 years of service to the same company — Tamosaitis says a manager and a HR person took away his security badge and phone and escorted him out of the building.

Walter Tamosaitis, and his wife Sandy.

Anna King / Northwest News Network

Walter Tamosaitis: “And I stood there in the parking lot and door shut behind me. And I looked back and I had that feeling like holy geese. I am out here in the middle of the desert. Like you’ve been dropped in the middle of the desert or the ocean. You feel so lonely.”

The 63-year-old Tamosaitis says this happened the day after he raised concerns about the plant to other top managers on the project.

The vitrification, or vit, plant is a huge facility. When it’s completed, it’s supposed to heat up radioactive sludge and make it into more stable glass logs. Those radioactive logs would then be stored deep underground for thousands of years.

Inside that massive plant is a lot of technology that’s never been used before. It was Tamosaitis’ job to make sure all that technology works properly.

Walter Tamosaitis: “My job, Anna, is to ensure the safety of the plant and the operating effectiveness. How well it operates, how smoothly it operates. And the safety of it. We can not have criticalities; we can not have sudden gas releases of hydrogen that could cause an explosion. We need to have a smooth operating plant.”

Tamosaitis’ says he was worried that the big tanks in the vit plant might not mix the sludge so well. That’s a problem because some waste, the consistency of peanut butter, might drop to the bottom and cause a chemical or nuclear explosion.

Tamosaitis has been reassigned to another position with his company URS, a major contractor with the vit plant, but not as a manager.

When Tamosaitis flew to a head office of his company in South Carolina and asked why he was taken out of his management role, his bosses at URS told him they do whatever the lead contractor, Bechtel, says.

Walter Tamosaitis: “Even if they do wrong. You do what they say? And the comment to me was made, ‘We do what Bechtel says.’”

I tried to reach both Bechtel and URS. Bechtel wouldn’t respond for this report. URS declined to comment.
The U.S. Department of Energy, the state of Washington and even federal nuclear oversight groups have all launched investigations or are looking into Tamosaitis’ claims.

But not everyone thinks the vit plant is in trouble.

Dan McDonald is one of the lead project managers for the state of Washington’s Ecology Department in Richland. He closely monitors the vit plant’s design and construction. He says Tamosaitis’ concerns are not new, they are being studied by Ecology engineers, and…

Dan McDonald: “I am confident that the engineering analysis, and project analysis and the chemistry analysis that I have seen leads me to believe that we have a high probability of being successful with this process.”

But Tamosaitis says the contractors building the vit plant have a lot to lose. Bechtel could lose millions of dollars if mixer tanks on the vit plant aren’t designed by deadline.

Just before Tamosaitis was taken out of his position, Bechtel had turned in the final designs for the mixing tanks to the federal government, on time. He believes that Bechtel’s focus on meeting deadlines and getting paid, trumped safety concerns.

Tamosaitis says there’s a short term, get-it-done-now attitude on the project. And that federal and state agencies don’t want any more embarrassing delays. He says most troubling is that now others have stopped bringing up concerns with the vit plant.

Walter Tamosaitis: “If they will take a visible individual and do what they did to me, I would ask you what do you think that telegraphs to everybody else? The chilling effect that the Bechtel action has had will be devastating to the project.”

Tamosaitis says it’s been a month now, and he thought he would have his job back.

About a week ago he filed suit against his company URS.

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