Hanford’s Toxic Avengers

The Department of Energy is accused of suppressing deadly nuclear cleanup flaws at its waste treatment plant in Hanford, Washington.

Once home to the nation’s largest plutonium-making facility, Hanford, Washington, is now one of the most toxic nuclear-waste sites in the world. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is currently spending $2 billion a year to clean up the 586-square-mile reservation. However, not all is well on Washington’s dusty southeastern edge: Whistle-blowers are stepping forward, claiming that taxpayer money is being spent recklessly on a project riddled with potentially deadly design defects.

Donna Busche, who has been employed by contractor URS (originally known as United Research Services) as acting Manager of Environmental and Nuclear Safety at Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) since 2009, is among the latest of these senior managers to speak out about what she sees as the silencing of those who raise concerns about possibly lethal safety issues. Last November, Busche filed a complaint of discrimination under the federal whistle-blower protection statutes with the U.S. Department of Labor, alleging retaliation against her for reporting problems at the WTP, which one day will turn Hanford’s 56 million gallons of highly hazardous radioactive waste into storable glass rods through a process known as vitrification.

Climbing the corporate ladder in the male-dominated engineering world was no easy feat. But Busche, as numerous co-workers say, is tough, politically savvy, and scientifically skilled. After attending graduate school at Texas A&M and before arriving at Hanford, Busche was the Chief Nuclear Engineer and Manager of Nuclear Safety at the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Busche’s job at Hanford is to ensure that the site’s contractors produce adequate documentation to support the contractor’s compliance with federal environmental and nuclear-safety laws, meaning that virtually no aspect of construction can take place at the WTP until Busche says it is safe to do so. “I’m where the nuclear-safety buck stops,” says Busche.

If Busche says “Stop,” the work must stop. But saying “Stop” to the wrong guys, Busche claims, has gotten her in a heap of trouble with Hanford higher-ups.

Read the rest of this investigation at Seattle WeeklyResearch support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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