Professionalism/Walter Tamosaitis and the Hanford Site

Timeline of Walter Tamosaitis' Legal Battle with Hanford Site

OverviewEdit

Hanford SiteEdit

In 1943, the United States War Department gave residents of southeast Washington 30 days to evacuate a 586 square mile area or be forcibly removed. 51,000 workers turned this land into the Hanford Site, a nuclear facility whose purpose was to produce weapons grade plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project.[1] The Hanford Site process 110,000 tons of nuclear fuel until it shutdown in 1987. [1] Two years after shutdown, the United States and Washington State governments recognized the risks that the leftover solid and liquid wastes at the site posed to the area, especially the nearby Columbia River. This led to the Washington State Department of Ecology, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create the Tri-Party Agreement. This agreement began the cleanup of the site by creating hundreds of milestones for bringing the nonoperational Hanford Site into compliance with environmental regulations. [1]

CleanupEdit

Clean up at Hanford is ongoing and the site has been called "the most challenging cleanup site in the U.S." by the U.S. DOE. The DOE has estimated that over 450 billion gallons of liquid nuclear waste were deposited into the soil, that 53 million gallons of radioactive waste were held in 177 large known underground tanks, and that unknown amounts of solid nuclear waste were/are buried throughout the site. [2] Due to this large amount of nuclear waste and the need to find undocumented waste, the government has spent over $120 billion on cleanup of the site and currently employ 11,000 workers on the project. From this investment, much of the cleanup has been completed successfully: [2]

  • Six of the nine reactors have been successfully cocooned with steel and cement, to allow the radioactivity in the reactors to safely decrease.
  • 100% of the spent fuel is now safe in secure dry storage.
  • 798 found waste sites along the Columbia River’s shore have been remedied.
  • 12,000 cubic meters of underground stored waste have been removed for disposal.
  • All of the liquid waste in single shell underground tanks have been transferred to safer double-shell tanks.
  • 8 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater have been treated.

However with the liquid waste, all that has been done is ensuring there is less risk of leakage by moving it from soil deposits and single shell tanks to double shell tanks. The key for truly treating this waste lies in the creation of an on-site vitrification facility. Ensuring the safe design of this facility is what Walter Tamosaitis was brought on to do.

Walter TamosaitisEdit

Walter Tamosaitis is an engineer with over 40 years of experience in nuclear waste management and chemicals.He received a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering and degrees in Engineering Management. Beginning in 2003, Tamosaitis worked at the Hanford Site for URS Corporation, one of the government contractors hired by the United States DOE to run the site. He served as Research and Technology Manager for the future vitrification plant on site, know as the Waste Treatment Plant or "WTP". [3] Vitrification is the process of converting nuclear waste sludge into a stable solid form by mixing it with silicon and other components to create glass. This technology is groundbreaking and was a major area of research and funding at the Hanford Site. Tamosaitis specifically was in charge of "identifying and solving technology problems and raising concerns to management about engineering and process issues that could potentially affect the safe, efficient, and effective operation of the WTP".[4]

When working at the Hanford Site, Tamosaitis became concerned about several important safety issues. The first of these was the buildup of hydrogen gas inside the nuclear waste storage tanks on site. This presented an explosion risk, posing a threat to the entire plant staff and local community. The second was the plugging of nuclear waste pipelines, which transport the nuclear waste into storage tanks. This also poses an explosion risk to the site. These concerns highlighted unsafe practices going on at the facility, which could, according to Tamosaitis, impacted the future design of the WTP.[5] Tamosaitis worried that if these safety issues were not addressed, the construction of the WTP would only exacerbate the existing issues. When pressured to sign off on a process to move the WTP forward, regardless of these safety concerns, Walter refused and gave up a $6 million bonus. Eventually, Tamosaitis was demoted from his position as manager of the WTP and moved to a basement office, which he shared with two copy machines and a printer. Eventually, he was fired from the WTP by Bechtel International, the other contractor running the site, who withheld his severance pay until he would agree to give them legal immunity. He never gave up, and never received his pay. [5]

AftermathEdit

Congressional TestimonyEdit

In March 2014, Tamosaitis testified before Congress on a panel with several others who were fired for reporting nuclear safety issues at Hanford. During his testimony, Tamosaitis argued that the government contract companies running the Hanford site had no incentive to do the right thing. He claims that “all legal fees incurred by Bechtel and URS to fight employee legal actions are reimbursed on an ongoing basis via taxpayer money. Then if the company is found guilty, they may be asked to pay back. Well, what do they do? They settle before they pay back. They’re not found guilty, no payment.”[5] The contractors were never forced to realize the consequences of their unsafe actions. He also believes that the government contractors on site only cared about securing their government funding, and to do that they must achieve steady progress on their projects. When employees would bring forward safety concerns, the companies would often retaliate against them instead of listening to what they had to say.[5]

LitigationEdit

Tamosaitis was removed from the Waste Treatment Plant on July 2, 2010. He suspected that his “whistleblower activities were a substantial factor”[6] in his removal from the Hanford Site, so he filed a complaint with the Department of Labor (DOL) on July 30, 2010. The complaint alleged violations of the whistleblower provisions of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which prohibits employers from discharging or discriminating against an employee that has notified them of an alleged violation of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. This complaint prompted investigations by the DOE Health, Safety, and Security (HSS) office, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), and the DOE Office of Inspector General (IG). However, because these investigations did not yield reparations, Tamosaitis filed suit in Washington state court on September 13, 2010 against Bechtel and URS for “conspiracy and tortious interference surrounding [his] employment with URS in the WTP.”[7] This lawsuit was initially dismissed by U.S Judge Lonny Suko, but in 2014, an appellate-court panel reinstated the case because it decided that Tamosaitis had “introduced evidence sufficient to create a triable issue as to whether his whistleblowing activity was a contributing factor”[8] to his removal from the WTP.

Tamosaitis also filed suit in Federal court against URS and DOE for “retaliation in violation of ERA and for damages”[4]. However, the district court “granted DOE’s motion to dismiss because “Tamosaitis did not wait a full year after naming DOE in his agency complaint and so did not exhaust his administrative remedies against DOE.”[9] The court also granted summary judgment to URS for lack of administrative exhaustion, “reasoning that Tamosaitis was required to wait one year after changing the named defendant from URS Inc. to URS Corp. and URS E&C before filing suit in federal court.”[9]. This was part of a larger ruling that “Tamosaitis had no statutory or constitutional right to a trial by jury.”[9]

Tamosaitis was finally fired by URS in October, 2013 for “downsizing reasons”[5]. Tamosaitis did not accept this explanation, so he initiated a second whistleblower complaint with the DOL. Little progress was made until August, 2015, when Tamosaitis finally agreed to a $4.1 million settlement with URS. This settlement “fully and forever release[d], acquit[ted], discharge[d], and dismisse[d] URS for any alleged acts or omissions related to his employment retaliation claims that gave rise to Dr. Tamosaitis’ removal from the WTP and Dr. Tamosaitis’ employment termination by URS.”[4]

Personal ConsequencesEdit

Tamosaitis’ experience shows how difficult it is to be a whistleblower. Following his removal from the WTP, Tamosaitis was “relegated to projects that [did] not require his level of experience”[10], and was given an office in the basement that was connected to the janitor’s supply room and had two extremely noisy copy machines. He was frequently the subject of abuse from his colleagues and managers. In his September, 2010 lawsuit, Tamosaitis claimed that his manager, Duane Schmoker, told him that “if you pursue this [lawsuit], your longevity is in danger.” When “Dr. Tamosaitis asked if this meant his life, health, or job,” “Schmoker made no reply.”[5] Tamosaitis claims that this abuse led to “loss of enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, injury to reputation, and humiliation. Tamosaitis also claims that he “lost friends and will “lose income and professional opportunities for the remained of his work life.”[10]

Hanford Site TodayEdit

Despite Tamosaitis’ sacrifice, the issues at Hanford have not been resolved. As recently as November, 2018, “a panel of nuclear safety experts [warned] that design flaws remain unresolved at the facility being built to process dangerous waste at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington.”[11] The DNFSB specifically warned that the WTP “could explode or cause an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. In both cases, dangerous levels of radioactivity would likely contaminate the Columbia River, the Tri-Cities and big swaths of productive agricultural land.”[11] The DNFSB also found that the WTP, which was originally scheduled for construction between 2001 and 2008, is not projected to begin operations until 2036.[11]

Ethical ConsiderationsEdit

Tamosaitis and WhistleblowingEdit

A whistleblower is a person who discloses information about wrongdoing within an organization. Whistleblowers expose information about any kind of activity that is considered illegal or unethical. Whistleblowers can be internal or external. In this case, Tamosaitis is an internal whistleblower.

Workers should be able to raise concerns without fear of retaliation. Standing up to government contractors has taken an emotional toll on Tamosaitis. In a 2011 National Public Radio publication, Tamosaitis states that “really finding out who your friends are is the biggest learning experience” associated with whistleblowing [12]. David Colapinto, a D.C. lawyer who specializes in nuclear industry whistleblowers explains that “career changes, family strife, and financial [destitution]” can result from raising concerns about safe practices [12].

After Hanford subcontractor, URS, agreed to settle Tamosaitis’ lawsuit for $4.1 million, URS still “strongly disagree[d] that it retaliated against [Tamosaitis] in any manner” [3]. According to a 2015 publication by the Tri-City Herald, Tamosaitis hopes his win “sends a message to…the young engineers who have integrity, are honest, and have the courage to hang in there, that justice will prevail” [3]. He also defends whistleblowers, claiming that “wrong only prevails when good people don’t speak up” [3]

Many applauded Tamosaitis’ actions and the settlement, including Tom Carpenter. Carpenter is the director of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based advocacy for Hanford workers. Carpenters describes Tamosaitis as “a hero who staked his career to raise nuclear safety issues that could have resulted in a catastrophe down the road” [3].

Generalizations and Future WorkEdit

Tamosaitis did not go against his morals when pressured by members of authority or when bribed with a multi-million dollar bonus. Professionals must be honest and capable of standing up for what is ethical. Engineers have specifically impactful jobs and must understand the consequences if they fail to do their job correctly. Engineers may face many ethical issues throughout their career. Some issues may be technical in nature, but it is likely that many will more broadly relate to business practices. Engineers must be aware not only of their technical responsibilities, but also how their duties fit into a business and overall business conduct.

Future research may include the effects of Tamosaitis' whistleblowing on the nuclear sector. Has public perception of nuclear engineering changed as a result of the unethical practices at the Hanford site? Additional research may examine how government funding has changed in response to the unsafe conditions at the Hanford site.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b c Hanford History - Hanford Site. (n.d.). https://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/hanfordhistory
  2. a b Hanford Site | Department of Energy. (n.d.). https://www.energy.gov/em/hanford-site
  3. a b c d e Cary, A. (2015, August 12) Hanford whistleblower wins; Tamosaitis to receive $4.1 million settlement. http://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/hanford/article32240640.html
  4. a b c The Sheridan Law Firm. (2015, August 12). Settlement Agreement. http://sheridanlawfirm.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/081215-Tamosaitis-WLT-Signed-Settlement-Agreement.pdf
  5. a b c d e f Tamosaitis, W. L. Whistleblowers and Hanford Nuclear Site, Former Employees Panel, § Homeland Security subcommittee (2014). Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?318226-1/hanford-nuclear-site-safety-roundtable-hearing
  6. Tamosaitis et al. V. URS Inc. et al. (United States District Court Eastern District of Washington). https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/pagedetails.action?st=10-2-02357-4&granuleId=USCOURTS-waed-2_11-cv-05157-0&packageId=USCOURTS-waed-2_11-cv-05157&fromState=
  7. Tamosaitis, W. L. (2011, December 6). Dr. Walter L. Tamosaitis Before The United States Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight on “Whistleblower Porections for Government Contractors.” https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/TamosaitisStatementSCO20111206.pdf
  8. Emshwiller, J. R. (2015, August 13). Settlement Reached in Hanford Whistleblower Suit. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/settlement-reached-in-hanford-whistleblower-suit-1439422793
  9. a b c Berzon, M. S. Walter Tamosaitis V. URS Inc., et al. (United State Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit March 4, 2015). https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCOURTS-ca9-12-35924
  10. a b Tamosaitis, W. L. (2011, December 6). Dr. Walter L. Tamosaitis Before The United States Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight on “Whistleblower Porections for Government Contractors.” https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/TamosaitisStatementSCO20111206.pdf
  11. a b c Herald, A. C. (2014, November 7). Ninth Circuit reverses Hanford whistleblower ruling. http://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/hanford/article32205360.html
  12. a b Walt Tamosaitis: A Year Ago He Blew The Whistle on Hanford's Waste Treatment Plan. NPR https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=137649971