Patrick Malone

Workers Threw Out U.S. Nuclear Secrets With Common Rubbish for 20 Years

In June 2014, a worker at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee was surprised to find U.S. nuclear secrets inside a trash bag marked for disposal along with standard rubbish. Taking a closer look, the worker found 19 more documents in the bag that were either marked classified or were later determined to contain information that should have been labeled secret.

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25 Years After America's Biggest Nuclear Cleanup Project Began, Not a Single Drop of Waste Has Been Treated

The largest and most costly U.S. environmental cleanup project has been dogged for years by worries about an accidental nuclear reaction or a spill of toxic materials that could endanger residents nearby, as well as a history of contractor retaliation against workers who voice worries about persistent safety risks.

“The Board finds that expressions of technical dissent affecting safety at WTP, especially those affecting schedule or budget, were discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review,” Winokur wrote in June 2011. “Project management subtly, consistently, and effectively communicated to employees that differing professional opinions counter to decisions reached by management were not welcome and would not be dealt with on their merits.”

As a result, the safety board formally recommended the Energy Department strictly monitor the safety culture and technical soundness of the WTP project. Wednesday’s hearing was an extension of those recommendations.

Safety board member Jessie Roberson asked the assembled Energy Department representatives what has changed since scrutiny of the project has increased.

Kevin Smith, manager of the Energy Department’s Office of River Protection that helps oversee the project, acknowledged that workers’ “trust had been degraded” by what they’d seen happen when others spoke up . But he said workers now are freer to report safety concerns than they were in the past. Smith said he sent an email message to every worker on the WTP project inviting them to contact him when they’re frustrated by management responses to safety observations.

“Nobody shoots the messenger,” Smith said. “We want all the issues out. We want to get them all on the table and fundamentally change.”

But accusations of whistleblower retaliation persist at Hanford and other nuclear sites. Glenn Podonsky, head of the Office of Enterprise Assessments that has enforcement authority over Energy Department contractors, told the safety board on Wednesday that his office was at Hanford last week investigating another whistleblower’s complaint.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said ending management’s hostile reactions to dissent is essential to the future of the WTP project.

“The bottom line here is [Tamosaitis] and other whistleblowers should never have been retaliated against in the first place for calling attention to the problems at Hanford,” Wyden said in an email to The Center for Public Integrity. “Whistleblowers play a crucial role in holding government and government contractors accountable. It is my hope that this case acts as a further catalyst for the Department of Energy to protect workers who seek to improve the culture and effectiveness of its facilities.”


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