In early November, a federal appeals court will consider the case of a well-known Hanford whistleblower.
Walter Tamosaitis argues his career was essentially killed after he voiced safety concerns at the southeast Washington nuclear cleanup site. Earlier this month, the high-level manager was laid off for good.
According to the federal contractor that employed him, It wasn’t retaliation . But U.S. senators and watchdog groups fear this turn will make other workers with safety concerns clam up.
"My career is dead"
Walter Tamosaitis has had, as he puts it, a lot of stomach acid these past couple of weeks.
“I’ve gained a bunch of weight because I tend to eat when I’m nervous and worried.”
He says he’s had good days and bad days from the Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago when he was escorted out the door.
The day we sat down to talk in his formal dining room, his mood was turning melancholy.
"I went to the mail and I read the information from the unemployment office of fill this out, and send this in and apply for three jobs per week," says Tamosaitis. "And then reality sets in of holy smokes, I’ve been laid-off and I’m unemployed and your emotions drop like an anchor through the water.”
It’s been about three years since Tamosaitis went public with his claim that the massive nuclear treatment plant now under construction at Hanford might not be robust or safe enough. That factory is intended to bind up radioactive sludge into more-stable glass logs.
His concerns, and those of others, spurred several independent federal investigations. They validated several large technical problems with the $12 billion nuclear waste treatment plant.
But Tamosaitis says none of that ultimately saved his job or his future. “My career is dead,” he says.
A broken system?
His former employer, URS, gives a different account. The company was unwilling to go into details about Tamosaitis’ lay off after four decades of service. In a written statement, it implied it was not punitive, but that Tamosaitis was caught up in downsizing due to tight budgets. URS emphasized that it “encourages its employees to raise any concerns about safety, which remains the company’s highest priority.”
The latest developments prompted Oregon’s senior U.S. Senator Ron Wyden to write to the Secretary of Energy. Wyden says the whistleblower’s fall sends the wrong message when Hanford needs a turnaround.
“The very fact that this doctor is in court, shows that the safety culture system is broken," Wyden says. "The fact that he was fired just days after the Secretary of Energy personally pledged to make sure that the Department had a safety culture that encouraged employees to come forward, confirms that it is broken.”
Seattle-based Hanford watchdog Tom Carpenter asks this: How will the public really know that Hanford’s plant is safe, if workers closest to the action are afraid to bring up problems they see?
“It doesn’t matter what you say to people," says Carpenter. "You can say, ‘Oh we want to hear your concerns.’ But if you slap them down every time, they’re going to watch for the slap, not the words.”
Tamosaitis has two pending lawsuits against the Department of Energy and two of its contractors, Bechtel and URS. The lawsuits, now at the appeal stage, allege whistleblower retaliation and wrongful demotion. In both cases, the trial courts ruled against Tamosaitis’ claims.
This month, URS offered Tamosaitis 26-weeks of severance pay if he drops all legal wrangling against his former employer. Tamosaitis says he thinks it would be ethically and morally wrong to accept.