Nuclear Site Project Official Fired After Airing Safety Concerns

Ted S. Warren/AP file photo

'The Energy Department's overall safety culture is broken,' the government contractor says.

A senior government contractor was fired from her job this week years after she voiced safety worries about a project to dispose of nuclear-weapons waste.

URS Corp. confirmed it had let go of Donna Busche, who in 2011 blew the whistle on concerns that a long-running project in Washington state to transform toxic radioactive waste into glass did not adequately take into account safety concerns, the Associated Press reported.

Building work on the $12 billion vitrification plant at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which began in 2001, has been halted due to the unresolved safety issues, which the Energy Department is probing.

"I turned in my key and turned in my badge and left the building," Busche, a senior project official, said in a phone interview with the wire service. She previously formally accused URS Corp. of punishing her for the safety complaint.

URS Corp. in released comments rejected Busche's assertion that she was fired for being a whistleblower: "We do not agree with her assertions that she suffered retaliation or was otherwise treated unfairly."

The project to dispose of 53 million gallons of nuclear waste at Hanford has experienced numerous setbacks due to problems fine-tuning the vitrification technology, cost overruns and and schedule delays.

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

Busche is not the first person to be dismissed from the Hanford project after airing nuclear-safety concerns. Walter Tamosaitis, a former URS project research and technical manager, was sent packing in October after he gave his superiors a list of technical issues he said could affect safety at the plant.

"The Energy Department's overall safety culture is broken and all they are doing now is sitting idly by," Busche told the Los Angeles Times.

Separately, the department on Tuesday said it had begun probing what caused a radioactive leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the Times reported. Regular activities at the underground repository, which stores U.S. nuclear weapons waste, have been on hold since the leak was discovered on Friday.