June 16, 2015

Wyden to Hold up Energy Department Nomination over Unaddressed Hanford Concerns

Washington, D.C.– Sen. Ron Wyden, D- Ore., today said he would object to the Senate’s consideration of the Department of Energy’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Management, in a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Wyden said he would hold up the full Senate proceeding to vote on the nomination of Monica C. Regalbuto until the Energy Department takes “concrete action” to address both the culture of hostility for workers at Hanford and the department’s failure to clean up even one gallon of high-level radioactive nuclear waste after 25 years and billions of dollars spent at the site.

“It is time for the culture of hostility against the whistleblowers at Hanford to end,” Wyden said. “Until I see corrective action – concrete action – from the Department of Energy to address both the whistleblower issue and the treatment of radioactive waste, I am going to be objecting to the Senate proceeding to the nomination of Dr. Regalbuto. This is not a judgment of her qualifications, as she is highly qualified to serve in that role, but rather an insistence that needed changes at Hanford cannot be put off any longer.”

In the hearing, Wyden expressed continued concern about the Energy Department’s management of the Hanford Nuclear site in Washington State, including the way the department and its contractors have treated whistleblowers. Two employees – Dr. Walt Tomasaitis and Donna Busche – were fired by department contractors after reporting safety concerns to the Secretary of Energy. At least two other Hanford contractors retaliated against employee whistleblowers, according to investigations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The hostile work environment at Hanford is having a chilling effect on employees at the site who might want to raise concerns. A report by DOE’s Office of Environment, Safety and Health Assessments last June found that only 30% of federal employees in the Office of River Protection, which oversees the high-level radioactive waste tanks and the Treatment Plant, felt that they could come forward and openly challenge a management decision. 

In March, Wyden asked the Energy Department’s Inspector General Greg Friedman to investigate the activities of a department contractor, Bechtel National, Inc., after a company report showed that $277 million of taxpayer money has been spent on work orders that have not been completed at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant.

Wyden has repeatedly called on the Department of Energy to improve oversight and safety practices at Hanford, starting with a law he wrote more than 20 years ago while in the House of Representatives that required the DOE to monitor risks of leaks from single-shelled storage tanks.

Wyden is a senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.