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RICHLAND, Wash. – On the banks of the Columbia River, miles of open land sit undeveloped behind barbed wire fences. A handful of mysterious structures dot the landscape, remnants from the early days of the Cold War. Passing by the old Hanford nuclear production complex can feel like a journey into the past.
Known simply as Hanford, workers here produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic bomb and for many of the nation’s current nuclear warheads. The site was first developed in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project and ceased plutonium production nearly 50 years later, leaving behind 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste. Spanning 586 square miles, it is now ground zero for the largest cleanup project in America.
For 27 years, Mike Geffre was part of that effort, working in an area known as the tank farms: 177 massive underground storage tanks, which hold up to 1 million gallons each of the country’s most toxic nuclear waste.
A crack in the shell
First built in the 1940s, many of the original single-shell tanks leaked and contaminated the local groundwater. But starting in the 1960s, the federal government built stronger double-shell tanks that were supposed to hold the waste securely until it could be treated and sent to a deep geological repository for final keeping. Geffre, who maintained instruments used to monitor chemical and radioactive waste, spent much of his time looking for leaks in the supposedly unleakable tanks.
“And thousands and thousands of calibrations and checking equipment, checking maybe false alarms, had never found anything,” Geffre said. “And then, the day that I found it was kind of a surreal moment.”
In October 2011, Geffre found the first leak in a double-shell tank, something that wasn’t supposed to happen. Dangerous radioactive waste in a tank called AY-102 had leaked into a space between the tank’s inner and outer shell, called the annulus. No waste had reached the environment yet, but the discovery proved that earlier assumptions about the safety of double-shell tanks were wrong. By law, the leak required immediate action.
“I expected something immediately to happen," Geffre said. "I expected that there was this process in place, above my level, that once I give this information that there would be [an] immediate process for getting the equipment in place and start getting ready to pump it out.”
But Geffre said his employer, the government contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, refused to investigate further, claiming that the leaking material was likely rainwater, even though it registered as radioactive. WRPS was in the first couple years of a 10-year, $7.1-billion contract to manage the aging tank farms.
“I felt like we should be doing more to find out how bad the tank was leaking," said Geffre. "So I would make suggestions politely, and then was rejected on them."
Disillusioned, he left the job a few years short of retirement.
It took more than a year for WRPS and the U.S. Department of Energy to publicly admit that Geffre had been right. And it was just last month that Hanford officials agreed to start pumping the tank – by March 2016.
A failing grade
Geffre is part of a growing chorus calling out Hanford for a poor safety culture. Since March, nearly 50 tank farm workers say they’ve been sickened by chemical vapors that escape sporadically from venting systems.
One tank farm worker, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from WRPS, told America Tonight that he experienced a chemical exposure earlier this year and has suffered weakness and ill health for months.
I felt like we should be doing more to find out how bad the tank was leaking. So I would make suggestions politely, and then was rejected on them.
Former tank farm inspector
In July, Hanford officials announced that they had tested roughly 12,000 air samples and found no evidence of dangerous exposures. But then, just a few weeks ago, WRPS changed its safety policy, saying workers must now wear half-face respirators in areas where vapors may occur and, if they so choose, can use supplied-air tanks as well. Similar to a SCUBA tank, supplied-air tanks can be cumbersome – supplying only 30-40 minutes of breathing time and limiting movement and field of vision.
Critics say it’s not enough though, and the wave of sickened workers has led to evacuations and work stoppages at the site.
“They have to put money into protecting workers, which they don’t want to do,” said Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a watchdog organization that wants to “transform Hanford’s nuclear legacy into a model of safe and effective cleanup.”
The real solution, according to Carpenter, is to install chemical scrubbers – used in other industries – to capture and treat vapors before they're released into the air.
“It’s been recommended that they do that since 1992,” he said.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Carpenter obtained documents from 2005 to 2009 that recorded at least 100 instances of hazardous chemicals exceeding safety standards.
In one instance, a toxin known to cause liver damage called nitrosodimethylamine, or NDMA, was found in concentrations more than 13,000 times greater than those permitted by federal health and safety standards.
“It’s page after page of these kind of things, where there are 3,000 times, 3,700 times the permissible limit,” said Carpenter. “The Department of Energy itself has done several assessments in the last four years of the safety culture at the Hanford site and has given them a failing grade.”
A whistleblower fired
Workers who speak up about safety problems at Hanford have also been punished. Shelly Doss, an environmental specialist, worked at Hanford and was responsible for ensuring that WRPS complied with federal and state regulations.
She said the problems started after WRPS took over the tank farms contract and repeatedly failed to report safety violations as required by law.
“If we’re not following those rules, then we’re falling down and we’re not keeping everybody safe," Doss said. "We’re not keeping the workers safe and the public and the environment safe."
But when she pointed out these problems to managers, she said they moved her to other projects. Eventually, they took away all her work and fired her in 2011.
“It was a horrible feeling to know that you’re being laid off for doing your job and doing it right,” Doss said. “It hurt. It was humiliating.”
WRPS claimed Doss was let go as part of a layoff, not fired. But the Department of Labor agreed with Doss. Calling the company’s claims “not credible” and citing evidence that Doss had faced retaliation and blacklisting, the Labor Department ordered WRPS to reinstate her immediately and pay back wages and penalties.
“Finally, after three long years, I had been vindicated on everything,” Doss said. “Every single ruling was against WRPS. Every ruling was in my favor.”
She acknowledged her $200,000 back pay award was just a slap on the wrist for WRPS. But it didn't matter anyway; she never got it. The August 2014 decision wasn’t enforced and the company is appealing the decision. The Labor Department says it doesn’t have statutory authority to enforce its decision.
It was a horrible feeling to know that you’re being laid off for doing your job and doing it right. It hurt. It was humiliating.
“I am still unemployed and I still have no back wages," said Doss. "We’re still in the litigation game."
Asked to comment on how it handled whistleblowers, the Energy Department provided a written statement, pointing to its program, the Employee Concerns and Differing Professional Opinion, which it said had "approved procedures and processes" that "allow[ed] contractor personnel to raise concerns…"
WRPS declined to comment on whistleblowers.
“They really need to be severely fined when these things come out to where it sends a message not only to that company but to all other companies if you guys are going to participate in this type of bad behavior, you will be punished,” said Doss.
That certainly didn't happen when the Energy Department and WRPS finally acknowledged Geffre's leak. By that point, he was already gone, leaving behind a job that he loved.
“A lot of people voice concerns and then they’re afraid to push it," he said. "You get a few people who do push them, and then they’re removed from their positions."
Geffre said he loved his job at Hanford and still misses the work. But he doesn’t miss the fear of speaking up.