Whistle-blower fired from Hanford nuclear site

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Whistle-blower Donna Busche, who raised safety concerns at the nation's most polluted nuclear weapons production site, was fired Tuesday from her job at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Busche, 50, said she was called into the office Tuesday morning and told she was being fired for cause.

"I turned in my key and turned in my badge and left the building," Busche told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Richland, where Hanford is located.

Busche worked for a subcontractor of Bechtel National Inc., which is building a $12 billion plant to turn Hanford's most dangerous wastes into glass. Construction of the plant has been halted over safety concerns.

Busche has filed complaints with the federal government alleging she has suffered retaliation since filing her original safety complaint in 2011.

Bechtel officials, who in the past said her complaints lacked merit, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Officials for the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, also did not immediately return telephone messages.

Busche said she had been expecting to be fired for the past month as her treatment worsened. That included co-workers who did not make eye contact, interrupted her when she spoke or performed her duties.

"Right now I will take a deep breath, file for unemployment and start another lawsuit for wrongful termination," Busche said.

She declined to reveal her salary, but called herself a "highly compensated executive."

Busche was a manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the waste treatment plant construction site, and her primary job was ensuring compliance with dangerous waste permits and safety documents.

"I am in shock," said Busche, who worked at the plant for nearly five years.

Tom Carpenter of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge called Busche's firing an act of desperation.

"They couldn't make her leave," Carpenter said.

Busche's complaints are part of a string of whistle-blower and other claims related to the design and safety of the waste treatment plant at Hanford.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, where cleanup costs about $2 billion each year.

Central to that cleanup: 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 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.

Several workers have raised safety concerns. Busche and one other worker filed suit as whistle-blowers saying they were targeted for reprisals for raising questions.

Busche has worked at Energy Department nuclear complexes her entire career, generally in nuclear safety, quality assurance or regulatory compliance.

Busche filed her most recent complaint in November, alleging she has suffered retaliation by her employer, URS Energy and Construction Inc., and Bechtel National Inc. She filed the new complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor.