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Whistleblower Fired After Voicing Safety Concerns at Nuclear Site

Donna Busche, who repeatedly cited dangerous conditions, is not first forced from job at leak-prone nuclear waste dump

Sarah Lazare

The person responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the former nuclear weapons site in Hanford, Washington—the most contaminated in the United States—was fired on Tuesday after blowing the whistle on the dangerous conditions at the facility.

Donna Busche—manager of Environmental and Nuclear Safety for the San Francisco-based URS Corporation, a Hanford cleanup subcontractor hired by the federal government — is at least the third senior official who has been fired or forced out after raising the alarm about lack of safety at the site, according to the Los Angeles Times. She said executives told her she was being fired for “unprofessional conduct.”

“The Energy Department’s overall safety culture is broken and all they are doing now is sitting idly by,” Busche declared on Tuesday.

While URS claims Busche was not punished or retaliated against, Busche says she was "absolutely" targeted.

Busche, who had repeatedly charged that the clean-up company was steamrolling safety protections and ignoring dangerous technology flaws, had previously filed a lawsuit and a U.S. Labor Department complaint charging that URS was attempting to repress and fire her for speaking out.

"When people stand up and say something is unsafe and, as a result of that, they get fired, it sends a message to everyone else that to protect your career you should say nothing," said Tom Carpenter, Executive Director for the watchdog organization Hanford Challenge, in an interview with Common Dreams.

He added, "I feel extremely disappointment that the federal government, who hires these contractors, has failed to hold this company to account."

The Hanford facility, which was built by the federal government during the 1940s, has long been central to the U.S. military's nuclear arsenal, including the development of the atom bomb, production of plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and other nuclear weapons.

The massive facility, which is now mostly decommissioned, is home to more than 53 million gallons of extremely radioactive sludge held in troubled tanks that have previously leaked. An estimated 1 million gallons of radioactive fluid has already spilled at the site, threatening the nearby Columbia River.

The Energy Department is engaged in a multi-billion dollar effort to transform this radioactive waste into a glass-like substance for permanent underground storage. Yet several high-ranking scientists and officials at the site have warned the technology is unsound and the process reckless.

Although they were also fired, the previous warnings by whistleblowers prompted work stoppages and a federal investigation into dangers at the site—including the possibility of a hydrogen explosion.

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