The inspector general of the US Department of Energy has said it cannot determine if a whistleblower at the $13bn Hanford nuclear waste project in Washington State was fired for raising safety concerns because two contractors, engineers URS and Bechtel, did not provide all the documents it needed.
The Hanford waste treatment facility is intended to replace 177 ageing underground tanks that store 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste, and many of which have leaked.
These contractors have sent a clear message to any potential whistleblower at the Hanford complex: nobody, including the Department of Energy, is more powerful that we are– Donna Busche, manager at URS Energy and Construction
In February, Donna Busche, a manager at URS Energy and Construction, whose job was to ensure compliance with dangerous waste permits and safety documents, claims she was fired for raising safety concerns.
Bechtel and URS have denied that they retaliated against Busche. URS said Busche was fired for reasons unrelated to the safety concerns.
Gregory Friedman, the inspector general, reported on Monday that he could not determine whether Busche’s claims were justified because he had not been given access to internal documents by URS and Bechtel, which was its employer on the project.
The report said: "We did not have access to the full inventory of documents which we felt were necessary to conduct our review. There was a fundamental conflict between the need of the Office of the Inspector General to have unfettered access to information and the desire of the two contractors to protect their legal interests in an upcoming lawsuit." This was a reference a federal lawsuit filed by Busche after her dismissal.
The report said Bechtel withheld 235 documents and URS 4,305 documents. URS later allowed access to a portion of the withheld papers.
Friedman explained the background to the contractors’ decision to withhold documents in a memo sent last week to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He said the contract between the department, URS and Bechtel specifically required the companies to "produce for government audit all documents acquired or generated under the contract, including those for which attorney-client and attorney work product privilege was asserted". However, counsel for both URS and Bechtel asserted "these clauses were too broad and that they were unenforceable, specifically in situations where litigation was either in process or was likely".
Bechtel issued a statement saying it was disappointed in the language of the report. It said: "Bechtel went above and beyond in co-operating with the Inspector General’s investigation. Bechtel is committed to providing a work environment in which all employees are treated fairly and are able to raise concerns without fear of retaliation, and Bechtel expects its subcontractors to do the same."
Busche issued issued a statement through her attorneys that said: "This is exactly what we expected from URS and Bechtel. These contractors have sent a clear message to any potential whistleblower at the Hanford complex: nobody, including the Department of Energy, is more powerful that we are."
Hanford used to be the main US site for the manufacturing of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The federal government is now paying more than $2bn a year to maintain and clean-up the resulting nuclear waste.
Democrat senator Claire McCaskill demanded a briefing from the Energy Department no later than 31 October regarding the contractors’ withholding of the documents and emails.