Bill would make Hanford contractors regret whistleblower retaliation

Courtesy Department of Energy

The U.S. House approved an annual defense bill on Thursday that could make contractors at Hanford and other Department of Energy sites pay fines for nuclear safety violations.

The National Defense Authorization Act states that the energy secretary should impose civil penalties on contractors who retaliate against whistleblowers who raise nuclear safety issues.

The provision, inserted into the bill by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., was in response to a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office that found that DOE seldom holds its nuclear program contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation against whistleblowers.

Smith is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The bill also would require regular briefings to Congress on issues with chemical vapors at Hanford tank farms, which some workers say have caused serious or fatal neurological or respiratory illnesses.

DOE would be required to provide prompt notification to Hanford in the event of another danger, the airborne release of radioactive contamination at Hanford.

That would be followed by congressional briefings on the cause and costs to address.

Other language inserted by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., would continue to keep the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection through at least 2024.

The office was created in 1998 to put a focus on cleanup of 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks, while the existing DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office focuses on other Hanford environmental cleanup and operation of the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation.

The version of the National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House on Thursday was a reconciliation of earlier versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate.

The Senate must still take up the current version of the bill that came out of conference negotiations.