Donna Busche, 48, of Richland, has come forward with concerns about Hanford's waste treatment plant project. She is one of several high-level whistleblowers to speak out about the $12 billion plant under construction in southeast Washington. By Anna King.
RICHLAND, Wash. – Waste in underground tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation may have much more plutonium than previously thought. That's according to a report by a Hanford contractor that's just been leaked to public radio. It's also according to the latest high profile whistleblower to raise serious concerns about a waste treatment plant being built at the Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington.
Here is why you should care about what Donna Busche says. She told me she's the manager for environmental and nuclear safety at Hanford's waste treatment plant.
"I'm where the nuclear safety buck stops," Busche says.
And Busche wants a well-working plant.
"I believe the waste treatment plant is needed. We need to get the waste out of the tanks, we have to. Right? They are in degraded state they are long past their life cycle," Busche says.
What that means is that those tanks near the Columbia River are in danger of leaking more radioactive sludge into the ground, or worse, one could rupture.
The waste treatment plant is a massive complex of buildings all meant to separate, mix and ready that radioactive sludge before it's turned into glass logs for long term storage.
But here's the thing: Busche says there are serious engineering problems with that process that haven't been figured out yet. And the longer those sticky issues go unsolved, the more expensive it will be to fix them.
"We continue to build it even with these big, huge lingering issues", say says. "Like:
*Is criticality safety a concern?
*Do I have fire protection programs that will actually make sure my systems perform as they're intended?
*Do I have a control strategy to make sure my pipes don't blow up from a hydrogen explosion?"
"Those are big issues," she continued. "And there are even good people working on that. But not a lot of people are willing to stand up and say, 'No, time out, we don't have enough information.'"
Here are some of Busche's main concerns:
Hanford engineers have recently revised their estimates for how much plutonium is in the nuclear site's sludge. Listen to these numbers: Hanford engineers used to think they had 10 kilograms of plutonium in the tanks. They now believe they've got between 30 and 130 kilograms. Let's put that in perspective: The nuclear bomb at Nagasaki had about 6 kilograms of plutonium. In the worst case scenario Busche says Hanford could have 13 times more plutonium than previously thought.
"Since day one of the project, many years before I got here, the project has designed the plant assuming criticality was incredible. Which means criticality it would never happen, never," Busche says.
A criticality is when radioactive atoms release a burst of energy.
"So this new information that we have received, that was prepared by very smart people, looking through old records, has given us new information meaning criticality could be probable in the plant. We don't know what the design solutions are, but they could be significant," Busche says.
Here's another of Busche's concerns: That radioactive sludge can create hydrogen gas. If it builds up in a closed space it can blow up. And Busche worries the plant's complex system of pipes isn't robust enough to withstand hydrogen explosions. And once the plant starts working, it's not like you can go in and fix those pipes.
"You have to remember that in this plant we are building vessels in black cells. Which means once we shut that door, we are never going back in there," Busche says.
The plant's black cells are where the waste is pretreated and processed, and they will be so radioactively hot that they're impossible to enter. Imagine fixing a leaky kitchen sink without opening the kitchen cabinets.
Busche raised her concerns to her supervisors, and to their supervisors. She even testified at a major two-day hearing of the national Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in 2010.
During her testimony to the board she gave different answers than top-level officials with the Department of Energy and contractors Bechtel National and URS. Afterward, she says her managers asked her to change her answers. Busche said "No."
She says she was ... "Raised by a very good mother, that said, 'Just don't lie. 'Cause once you tell your first one it's real hard to ... they just continue to grow.'"
In her formal complaint she tells this other story: In June of 2010, she was at a managers meeting with an engineer who went on to become a high-profile Hanford whistleblower. Walt Tamosiatis laid out about a 50-item list of technical concerns with the plant.
Before he did, he asked another manager if he could have some of the fresh cherries she had brought. She said, "Sure, maybe you'll choke on them."
Afterward, a top manager with contractor Bechtel National told Busche she didn't have to look into Tamosiatis' list of worries.
She says her response was that, in fact, she's obligated to look into those concerns. "You don't need to do it," her boss told her, according to the testimony. "I have to do it," Busche said before leaving his office.
Busche says she just wants an environment where she can do her job, but lately it's become uncomfortable at work.
"I'm not invited to the meeting because they don't like my answer. Or, I'm not invited to the meeting because they are uncomfortable with my physical presence. Okay. So yeah, it is difficult. And you find out quickly who your friends are not," Busche says.
Busche is 48. And her career is on the line.
"I saw no other choice for myself. I got to look at me in the mirror," Busche says.
The Department of Energy said in a written statement that the agency has "... been clear that it will not tolerate any retaliation for workers raising safety or technical concerns."
Busche's company URS declined to comment because of pending litigation. And Todd Nelson with contractor Bechtel National says, "We have a process where employees can raise issues and they are formally captured and she has confirmed that all the issues that she has raised are well documented and are being worked by the project."
Donna Busche has a whistleblower retaliation case against Bechtel and URS. It's now being investigated by the federal Department of Labor. There's another detail about Busche's experience that we haven't talked about. It has little to do with nuclear safety. She also alleges a direct manager at contractor URS subjected her to sexual harassment and discrimination. That claim is also part of the complaint with the Department of Labor.
On the Web:
Leaked plutonium report:
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio