New complaint filed about Wash. nuclear waste site

March 23, 2012 - 5:15 PM

KENNEWICK, Wash. (AP) — The Energy Department is investigating another complaint claiming a contractor at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site interfered with an investigation into the design and safety of a massive plant under construction to treat nuclear waste.

The complaint is the latest in a string of whistleblower and other claims related to the design and safety of the $12.3 billion waste treatment plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation in south-central Washington.

In a letter Friday to contractors handling the project, the Energy Department asserted again that "no form of interference" into reviews of the plant is acceptable.

"Please ensure that your managers, employees and subcontractors understand that it is their responsibility to provide unfettered and timely access to information and staff as requested," wrote Scott Samuelson, manager of the department's Office of River Protection in Richland, Wash.

The letters come a day after the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board conducted its second public hearing in 18 months in Washington state about the plant, which has long been considered the cornerstone of cleanup at the highly contaminated Hanford site.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, where cleanup costs about $2 billion each year.

Central to that cleanup: 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. The waste is stored in 177 aging, underground tanks, many of which have leaked, threatening the groundwater and the neighboring Columbia River.

The one-of-a-kind plant is being built to convert the waste into glasslike logs for permanent disposal underground, but it has faced numerous technical problems, delays and cost increases.

Most recently, several workers raised safety concerns, and two have filed suit as whistleblowers saying they were targeted for reprisals for raising questions.

Donna Busche, who filed one of the whistleblower lawsuits, also filed the latest complaint after learning that a manager at URS Corp. sought to keep her from participating in the review unless her supervisor was present.

URS is a subcontractor to Bechtel National Inc., the company building the plant, and provides expertise in the plant's eventual operation. Busche works for URS as the manager of environmental and nuclear safety for the plant.

"Ms. Busche's recent concern is being reviewed. We welcome employee concerns and encourage employees to be open and to raise issues," URS spokesman Keith Wood said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

In a March 20 letter, the manager of the Energy Department's enforcement arm of the Office of Health, Safety and Security, which is conducting the review, confirmed the allegations. A URS official contacted the agency and requested that Busche be removed from the interview schedule until her supervisor could be present to observe, director John S. Boulden III wrote, but the review team refused.

Ultimately, Busche's supervisor attended a large, group discussion about the plant. The review team leader decided to "not make an issue" of it, Boulden said.

"However, we now believe that the tension we observed during those discussions may have degraded the exchange of information with the team," he said.

Busche, 49, has worked at Energy Department nuclear complexes her entire career, generally in nuclear safety, quality assurance or regulatory compliance. She called the latest interference "egregious."

"This is an aggressive, retaliatory stance," she said. "It is demonstrative of the systemic issues here, so significant that even the Department of Energy found it offensive."

At Thursday's hearing of the nuclear board, Dave Huizenga, the agency's acting assistant secretary for environmental management, addressed the latest complaint while responding to questions about whether progress is being made on the project's safety culture.

"I would agree this is exactly the kind of thing we don't need," he said. "If there's actually a substantive, real problem, we're going to correct it. If there's a misconception, we have to try to address it."