Originally published on August 26, 2014, at NationofChange.org
Following an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered a government contractor to reinstate whistleblower Shelly Doss and pay $200,000 in back wages, attorney’s fees, and damages. The agency concluded government contractor Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) had wrongfully terminated Doss for reporting federal and state environmental violations at the nuclear cleanup site at Hanford, Washington.
Along the banks of the Colombia River lie a series of decommissioned nuclear reactors known as the Hanford site. Built during WWII as part of the Manhattan Project, the reactors produced plutonium for nuclear weapons. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), creating plutonium produced massive amounts of nuclear byproducts that were not properly disposed of and unintentional spills of liquid waste have contaminated the site.
Two years after the last reactor ceased operation in 1987, the DOE, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Washington State Department of Ecology entered into a legally binding accord to clean up the toxic waste posing a risk to the local environment at Hanford. Notorious for ignoring evidence of leaking nuclear waste tanks and toxic exposure to their employees, DOE contractor WRPS fired Doss in 2011 for raising concerns about environmental safety and record-keeping violations to management and to government agencies.
Doss’ reinstatement comes at a volatile time as thousands of containers filled with transuranic materials that were scheduled for delivery to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico have been delayed indefinitely. Consisting of materials contaminated with plutonium and other highly radioactive elements, the transuranic waste had been designated for disposal at the nation’s only repository, WIPP. A recent fire and radiation leak at WIPP have shut down the facilities pending several investigations and have resulted in a backlog of nuclear waste shipments.
On February 5, a diesel powered salt-hauler truck caught fire at the underground WIPP facility. Because the automatic fire suppression system had been turned off before the fire, the truck burned for several hours before workers noticed. After the facility was evacuated, six employees received treatment at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation. Without an official explanation for the fire, the Energy Department concluded that site managers had repeatedly ignored warnings to remove flammable materials from the mine and carelessly overlooked routine vehicle maintenance.
Nine days after the truck fire, a 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste erupted inside the WIPP facility. Traveling through a substandard air filtration system, low-levels of radiation contaminated at least 21 workers. Five days later, scientists from the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC) detected trace amounts of americium and plutonium over half a mile from the WIPP facility. CEMRC has detected these radioactive particles on filters at that station in 2003, 2008, 2009, and 2010, but the February 19measurements were much higher in comparison.
Investigators found that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had conducted only half of its required inspections of the nuclear waste repository during the past three years. A preliminary DOE investigation found over 30 safety lapses at the WIPP facility, while an EPA review of air testing discovered multiple discrepancies in recording data, flawed calculation methods, and missing documents.
Six months after the radiation leak, scientists still do not know what exactly caused the eruption. WIPP Recovery Manager Jim Blankenhorn said a switch from a non-organic substance to organic triggered the incident. Since the repository cannot accept liquid waste, kitty litter is used to absorb any fluids before the drums are sealed and shipped to WIPP. Officials at the Los Alamos National Laboratories made an unauthorized switch from a clay-based kitty litter to an organic kitty litter absorbent in the months prior to the leak.
Facing a shutdown that could last several years, WIPP has been forced to cease receiving waste shipments from nuclear cleanup projects across the country, including Hanford. Even before the fire and the radiation leak, the WIPP facility had been operating years behind schedule. As the closure of the nation’s only repository for transuranic waste continues, states such as Idaho, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington are left holding massive amounts of nuclear waste with no place to dump it.