Hanford was created by the federal government in the 1940s as part of the top-secret project to build the atomic bomb, and cleanup costs today run about $2 billion annually.
Central to the cleanup is dealing with 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 U.S. Department of Energy is investigating Busche’s safety concerns, while the U.S. Department of Labor is reviewing her complaints about retaliation and harassment.
URS Corp. said in a statement it encourages employees to raise safety concerns.
“We do not agree with her assertions that she suffered retaliation or was otherwise treated unfairly,” URS said, adding Busche was fired for reasons unrelated to the safety concerns. “Ms. Busche’s allegations will not withstand scrutiny.”
The Energy Department, which owns Hanford, said it was informed of the firing after the fact. “The department was not asked to and did not approve this action,” the agency said in a news release.
A 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.
Busche is the second Hanford whistle-blower to be fired by URS in recent months. Walter Tamosaitis, who also raised safety concerns about the plant, was fired in October after 44 years of employment.
Tom Carpenter of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge called Busche’s firing an act of desperation.
“They couldn’t make her leave,” Carpenter said. “Hanford’s war on whistle-blowers has taken a new victim.”
Busche worked at Energy Department nuclear complexes her entire career, generally in nuclear safety, quality assurance or regulatory compliance.
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