The allegations are deadly serious. The response? Not serious enough.
Walter Tamosaitis, former research and technology manager for Hanford's vitrification plant, says he was dismissed from the job for raising questions about safety and design at the $12.3 billion project.
One day he discusses a list of 50 concerns during a contractor meeting, and the next day he loses his job without any prior warning, according to Tamosaitis.
It's hard to believe that someone responsible for ensuring a safe design would be fired from any project for raising safety concerns.
It's especially mind boggling when the project in question is supposed to treat of some of the deadliest toxic and radioactive wastes in the world. A mistake could result in an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.
We don't know if Tamosaitis' account is accurate.
URS, the subcontractor that employs Tamosaitis, and Bechtel National, the lead contractor building the massive nuclear waste treatment plant, offer a different version of events.
"Our nuclear safety and quality culture encourages all employees to have a questioning attitude. As such, we expect internal staff and external technical experts to identify and raise safety, design and operational issues," according to a statement released Bechtel.
URS says Tamosaitis wasn't dismissed, only reassigned when a major piece of the company's vit plant work was completed.
Despite their different recollections of what transpired, officials for both companies told Herald reporter Annette Cary that they're taking Tamosaitis' allegations seriously.
So is the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
That's good, as far as it goes. But although the board is looking at the safety concerns raised, it doesn't have authority to address Tamosaitis' allegations of retaliation.
That leaves a big hole. No company can create a culture of safety if its employees are afraid that speaking up might cost them their jobs.
We've been to the vit plant.
It's an amazing venture.
The idea of a setting things in motion and sealing up the black cells, planned never to be opened again, is hard to imagine for most folks.
Stakeholders -- including all of us living near the plant -- must be confident in the design before anyone hits the start button.
It's such an intricate operation that the accusation of safety issues being swept under the rug concerns us -- a lot.
We think the Department of Energy should share our angst.
DOE hasn't said whether it plans to launch its own investigation. Playing coy on this issue will only undermine the agency's credibility. The department needs to get out front on this issue, and in a public way.
Staying out of your contractor's personnel issues is usually a smart policy, but this is more than a personnel matter. If Tamosaitis is correct, this is a safety matter -- something paramount to DOE's mission.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has limited authority, and the contractors involved have a built-in conflict of interest.
That leaves DOE to address Tamosaitis' claims of retaliation.
We're surprised and disappointed that DOE isn't playing a more active role in the process.