Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz demanding to know why the federal government has paid at least $3.5 million in legal expenses on behalf of private contractors fighting the claims of two whistleblowers who allege the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is riddled with serious safety hazards.
Senator McCaskill, head of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, is investigating the claims of Walter Tamosaitis and Donna Busche, two longtime Hanford employees who claim they were fired in retaliation for reporting serious and widespread safety threats at the site.
Hanford is the most polluted nuclear site in the U.S. For decades it processed plutonium for nuclear weapon but is now dedicated to the multi-billion-dollar task of cleaning up all the radioactive waste.
To accomplish that task, the Department of Energy (DOE) contracted Bechtel National to build a plant that would convert the nuclear waste into stable disposable glass. Bechtel hired URS Corp. as a major subcontractor for the project. Both companies are now defending themselves against allegations of wrongdoing made by Mr. Tamosaitis and Ms. Busche. The DOE is paying legal expenses incurred by Bechtel and URS in the process.
“I would like to understand the criteria used by the contracting officer to determine that this expenditure was allowable and reasonable,” Senator McCaskill wrote in the letter, requesting a reply by July 11.
Tom Carpenter of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge told the Associated Press that both Mr. Tamosiatis and Ms. Busche paid their own expenses to attend the same subcommittee hearing, and they weren’t even allowed time to testify.
In her letter, Senator McCaskill also asked Mr. Moniz if taxpayers would pick up the tab for costs the contractors incurred when they testified before her subcommittee in a March hearing. The Associated Press reported that URS alone said it estimated costs of more than $650,000 to prepare for the hearing.
According to the Associated Press, Senator McCaskill “also questioned nondisclosure agreements the two contractors required employees to sign” prohibiting employees “from disclosing confidential information without the contractors’ permission.”
“As you know, reporting those concerns, including to Congress, is protected by law,” McCaskill wrote, indicating that forcing such agreements would bar others from blowing the whistle on safety and environmental hazards.