By Ralph Varabedian of the LA Times
RICHLAND, Wash. —
Two U.S. senators angered by the firing of whistle-blower Walter Tamosaitis from the contaminated Hanford, Wash., nuclear site sharply criticized the U.S. secretary of Energy on Wednesday.
Tamosaitis, an engineer, had raised safety concerns two years ago about the design of a plant that is intended to turn radioactive waste into glass. After that, San Francisco-based URS Corp. took away his staff and assigned him to a basement office without furniture or a telephone.
Last week, Tamosaitis was laid off in what the company called a cost-cutting move. His defenders called it retaliation.
This week, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to Energy SecretaryErnest J. Moniz to say that Tamosaitis’ dismissal would set a bad precedent and set back efforts to improve the department’s safety culture.
Tamosaitis once ran a research group of 100 scientists at the Hanford site and had worked 44 years for URS. His dismissal was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Construction of the $12.3-billion waste-processing plant was halted after federal investigators validated his concerns.
Hanford, a former nuclear weapons site, is the nation’s most contaminated property. It holds 56 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge in underground tanks, some of which are leaking. The complex sits on a plateau above the Columbia River, which could be threatened if the waste is not contained. The Energy Department is supervising the cleanup.
Tamosaitis’ dismissal came days after Moniz issued a statement affirming his commitment to safety and the protection of whistle-blowers.
Wyden, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural resources, told Moniz that the dismissal “can only be seen as perpetuating a culture that would plunge DOE employees and contractors who dare to raise safety issues into the deep freeze or worse.”
Wyden noted that URS was demanding that Tamosaitis release the company from any legal claims arising from his termination to get a severance package.
Markey demanded that Moniz reverse Tamosaitis’ firing and alluded to URS retaliation against other employees.
“Simply put, if you do not take immediate action to halt URS’s retaliatory dismissal of Dr. Tamosaitis and ongoing retaliatory acts against other employees … who have raised safety concerns, your efforts to improve the department’s safety culture will lack all credibility,” Markey wrote. “Please do what is necessary, and what is right, to protect a truly heroic individual.”
The senators’ letters were disclosed by Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group in Washington state.