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Hanford nuclear site clean-up: The mess gets worse via NBC News

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But today, construction of the factory is only two-thirds complete after billions of dollars in spending, leaving partially constructed buildings and heavy machinery scattered across the 65-acre site, a short distance from the Columbia River.

Technical personnel have expressed concerns about the plant’s ability to operate safely, and say the government and its contractor have tried to discredit them, and in some cases harassed and punished them. Experts also say that some of the tanks have already leaked radioactive waste into the groundwater below, and worry that the contamination is now making its way to the river, a major regional source of drinking water.

Some lawmakers say Hanford has been an early — and so far dismaying— test of whether DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, previously an MIT physics professor, can turn the problem-plagued department around through improved scientific rigor and better management of its faltering, costly projects. They have accused his aides of standing by while a well-known whistleblower was dismissed last month.

Nuclear operators at the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Wash. run through emergency scenarios on Tuesday, May 3, 2011. Workers at the Northwest’s only nuclear power reactor are nearly midway through the longest refueling outage in the 26-year history of the plant. About one-third of the uranium fuel rods are being replaced at the Columbia Generating Station on the Hanford nuclear reservation. The plant’s condenser is also being replaced in the $154 million project. (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

Meanwhile, DOE officials are considering spending an extra $2 billion to $3 billion to help the plant safely process the waste. Doing so could delay the cleanup’s completion for years, the Government Accountability Office estimated in December.

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The most prominent of the plant’s whistleblowers is Walter Tamosaitis, the project’s former research and technical manager for URS, the prime subcontractor to Bechtel.

Tamosaitis’s troubles began after a 2010 meeting with Bechtel and URS managers, at which he turned over a list of technical issues that he said could affect plant safety, including continuing uncertainties about how the wastes should be kept mixed to stop them from settling into a critical mass and causing a chain reaction. If that happened, the resulting explosion would release deadly radiation.

Two days later, on July 2, URS, acting under orders from a Bechtel executive, pulled him from the project, according to a federal court complaint Tamosaitis filed in November 2011. He was reassigned to a basement office and stripped of supervisory responsibilities.

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Similar disputes recurred repeatedly that spring, as management officials struggled to meet their deadline. On June 16, Perry Meyer, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientist at the time who now works for the safety board, wrote an email relating “three potential threats I have heard” from managers toward technical staff.

Tamosaitis’s federal court complaint includes emails that show Russo ordered his removal July 1 after communicating with Dale Knutson, DOE’s project director of the plant at the time. “Use this message as you see fit to accelerate staffing changes,” Knutson said in an email to Russo.

Russo, after receiving Knutson’s email, sent a message to URS plant manager William Gay, stating that “Walt is killing us. Get him in your corporate office tomorrow.” Gay responded, “He will be gone tomorrow.”

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