Hanford worker's struggle to 'do the right thing'

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on April 25, 2013 at 11:05 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 13 at 6:04 PM

The private company that manages the radioactive waste tank farms at the Hanford Site ignored or missed numerous red flags over a 10-month period that showed a double-shell tank holding some of the worst waste was leaking.

Over much of that time, one Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) employee -- Mike Geffre -- continued to urge his superiors to take some sort of action.

But from Oct. 9, 2011 -- the day a leak detector alarm went off  -- until the first week of August 2012 -- when a scheduled video inspection documented the leak -- WRPS let evidence of the problem pile up without taking action to confirm what the tank monitoring instruments were showing and what advice experienced employees like Geffre were offering. The leak was not officially confirmed and revealed to the public until Oct. 22, 2012.

As Geffre pushed for action, his WRPS tank farm manager, Dave Strasser, told him not to be concerned. Strasser insisted that rainwater, not nuclear waste, had leaked into the space between the inner and outer shells of the tank. That space is called the annulus of a double shell tank. It is unclear if Strasser was making the decisions or if managers above him were calling the shots.

"It was like, we don't want to deal with this Mike. Just let it go. Shut up. Just let it go. Don't worry about it," said Geffre.

But Geffre did worry as the warning signs rolled in.

* October 9, 2011: Leak detection equipment (ENRAF) senses liquid in AY-102 annulus and goes into alarm.

* October 10, 2011: WRPS employee Mike Geffre and a colleague check the ENRAF to see if it is malfunctioning. It is found to be in working order. The employees observe what looked like dried up waste on the equipment and they record an unexpected reading of contamination from it.

* October 10, 2011: Geffre communicates his findings and his first concerns that the tank is leaking radioactive waste. Three WRPS managers and a co-worker were present to hear Geffre argue that they need to investigate.

* October 12, 2011: Geffre checks the AY-102 ENRAF again and confirms it is working properly. He and a co-worker again record radioactivity where none would be expected. He also takes a photo. Geffre urges managers to take action. Instead, they report to government officials that rainwater has most likely seeped into the annulus. The managers do not report the reading of contamination.

* October 24, 2011: Tank farm workers are instructed to flush the plummet on the AY-102 ENRAF that went into alarm on the 9th. Before the flush, a Geiger counter reading shows the plummet emitting 5 millirem of radiation; after the flush, the reading drops to 1.5 mrem. Experts tell KING this is an indicator that nuclear waste was flushed off the equipment.

* October 26, 2011: An alarm on an annulus air monitor went off. The radioactive reading of air particles spikes to the highest levels ever seen in this space by current employees.

* March 10, 2012: The AY-102 ENRAF plummet became glued to the bottom of the annulus, suggesting it might be stuck in dried waste.

* May 24, 2012: The plummet’s wire breaks, after which a health physics technician gets a reading of 20,000 disintegrations per minute (dpm) on the wire and reel (dpm is the measure of the intensity of the source of radioactivity). Radiation experts tell KING this reading is extremely high and should have prompted immediate action.

* June 4, 2012: A small camera lowered into the annulus to observe the stuck plummet recorded video of what looked like radioactive waste to many of the employees who viewed it.

* August 1, 2012: WRPS initiates a full video inspection of the tank. Company officials say this was a routine, regularly scheduled inspection. During this process photos were taken of what appeared to employees to be radioactive sludge. Equipment used to collect samples of the material came up contaminated with extremely high radioactive readings.

* October 22, 2012 – The U.S. Department of Energy announces publically that Tank AY-102 is leaking highly radioactive and chemically dangerous waste from the main tank into the annulus.

KING 5 has repeatedly requested on camera interviews with two tank farm managers and Mike Johnson, WRPS President, but a company spokesperson declined the requests on their behalf.

“As for the October 2011 events, experience gained over decades of tank farm operations led us to believe that a small amount of rainwater, not waste, was collecting in the AY-102 annulus,” according to a written statement provided by WRPS to KING 5. “This was based on recent heavy rainfall, the discovery of water intrusion pathways, known low levels of radioactive cross-contamination between the primary tank and the annulus, and readings from the leak detection system.”

The federal government has assured the public that no waste has leaked out of the annulus area and into the environment.
 
Emotional toll

"After a year of it I was at the end of my rope, I felt helpless," said Geffre. "It was like, we don't want to deal with this Mike, just let it go. ... Just shut up, just let it go, don't worry about it."

As the months and discounted red flags of a leak came and went, Geffre continued to worry about and bring up the issue to his managers.

"I complained a lot about it. I made a lot of statements like, ‘What are we going to do? We’re not doing anything. We really need to do something,’" said Geffre.

But no additional investigation took place, and Geffre said it began to affect all aspects of his life.

"I'd come home being frustrated and grumpy, I couldn't sleep at nights. I just laid there in bed thinking, 'There’s got to be more I can do, there’s got to be something done right here,'" said Geffre. "We weren’t doing the right thing. That really bothered me. It kept eating at me."

He said he thought about giving up his long and successful career.

"It bugged me to the point I was ready to sell everything and move to the woods, go to the mountains where I didn’t have to hear about it, read about it. I didn’t want to hear about Hanford. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore," said Geffre.

Through tears, Geffre struggled to express how distraught he’d become. "I didn’t enjoy it anymore. It was hard to go to work and fight so hard to do the right thing, so it was tough. I felt like they were wearing me down."

Geffre told KING 5 he did not take his concerns farther up the chain of command at his company. He also did not take his complaints to the WRPS Employee Concerns Program, which the company detailed in a memo to all employees the same day Geffre was featured in KING 5’s first story.

The resource is described in the memo as a program that "helps employees, managers and subcontractor personnel resolve matters not satisfactorily resolved through other preferred path alternatives." The memo advises that employees can even leave concerns anonymously on a hotline.

Geffre said he didn’t go over his managers' heads because he continued to believe they would take his advice and initiate a thorough investigation.

"I kept the faith that they would do the right thing. I believed in my company that they would do what was right. That’s why the stress came into play. I kept trusting them, and when nothing happened I really struggled," said Geffre.

Cultural shift with WRPS

Geffre said after the Department of Energy awarded the tank farm contract to WRPS in 2008, a noticeable cultural shift took place. WRPS is the sixth contractor to take over tank farm operations since Geffre began working at Hanford 26 years ago. He and other Hanford workers who spoke to KING under the condition of anonymity said that unlike the prior contractors, WRPS does not encourage employee participation in the sharing of ideas and problem solving.

"With this company, it’s 'We’ll tell you what to do, how to do it and when to do it,'" said Geffre.

"They operate more like the bully on the block. With the other contractors like CH2MHill and Westinghouse, they were far more inclusive," Geffre continued. "They wanted and allowed the employees to be involved in decision making and promoting new ideas. So we trusted the other contractors more. It was easier to challenge an idea. There’s no encouragement to do that now, zero."

In the memo sent to employees about the Employee Concerns Program (ECP), the company writes, "WRPS is committed to the free flow of information where we work together to meet DOE's tank farms mission for the Hanford Site. Contact (a designated company contact) or stop by the ECP office...with your questions or concerns."
 
Reaction

Geffre said it was frightening to conduct an interview with KING 5 because WRPS "knows how to put a chilling effect on people who come out and tell the truth. I was prepared to be escorted out by patrol on Tuesday morning after Monday’s story."

But that has not happened. Geffre said he has not felt any backlash from management and the feedback from co-workers has been positive.

"My fellow employees have been phenomenal. It’s beyond my wildest imagination. People are saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for stepping forward.' I’m getting hugs and high-fives because they know I’m a positive person. I’m not a disgruntled employee. I’ve always felt like it’s my responsibility to keep things positive at work," said Geffre. "So for me to speak out is a big deal. My co-workers know I have credibility and that they can trust me."

Now the U.S. Department of Energy and Gov. Jay Inslee are seeking answers about how Hanford's tank farms are managed, with DOE ordering that WRPS complete a review of its practices by August 1.

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