30 November 2010

Blowing the Whistle at Hanford

The UW anthropology class recently listened to the story of Hanford whistle-blowers - Ed and Cindy Bricker. Although both worked at Hanford, Ed - a third-generation Hanford worker - was a nuclear technician and Cindy worked in public affairs. Their story is very interesting, and it is helpful gaining a perspective of Hanford from those who worked there.
Before learning more about this interesting couple, it's nice to refresh - or in case you did not previously know - on some of the logistics of Hanford. DuPont was one of the early contractors at Hanford. Fuel elements were reacted with solvents to extract Plutonium and Uranium. The set-up of Hanford involves the facilities being far enough apart from one another so that if something were to occur at one facility, there would be a minimum effect on other facilities. Because of this separation, there is also little worker interaction. From a sociological viewpoint, this seems to be put in place purposefully in order to maintain secrecy in Hanford. However, there is some connection in that the Plutonium and Uranium were removed to other facilities after running through processes i.e. the Plutonium Plant. Another plant was PUREX (Plutonium Uranium Extraction). At the time, it was thought that technology could solve anything.
Despite this structure, there have been issues of safety, as I'm sure we have all heard. Ed Bricker gave an example of his father being exposed to radiation coming at him; he managed to hide behind batteries, which blocked him from radiation. Before, Ed's father was pro-Hanford. His feelings in that regard did not necessarily change, but after this incident he was more involved with union workers.
Cindy is also a Richland native. She says that Richland natives follow the three H's: High School (Richland High School), Hanford, and Heatherhouse (a retirement home). Growing up, people were not worried about Hanford, but they were concerned that they could be bombed because of Hanford's existence. However, she added that Hanford is a self-sustaining area, and is insulated from the recession even now.
During his time working at Hanford, Ed began noticing safety issues. His wife didn't believe him, insisting she would know if there were any. Cindy was working in public affairs, after all. However, after strange occurrences began happening, she realized that he had been right. For example, someone tampered with Ed’s air hose, and he barely had time to rush to a safe room to gasp for air. If Ed complained, he could lose his badge, which would mean losing his job, going bankrupt, and then inability to work in a federal job again.
Ed eventually began reporting the issues to Congress and the press. He had a network set up with other employees to gain more information as well. Eventually, it was found out that Ed was the one leaking information, and Hanford investigators tried to see what he was up to. The investigators would listen to Ed's phone conversations. His son even noticed a red light on the ceiling in their house, which was found to be from a listening device that one can use from outside. There was even a Bricker War Room at Hanford, in which articles were posted. After Congress found out that Ed was being tapped, they finally put their foot down and furiously addressed the issue.
Now, Ed is a bus driver, and he is content with that. Although Ed's whistle-blowing caused tension between him and his coworkers as well as his supervisors, he stuck to his beliefs. It was amazing gaining the perspective of a previous Hanford worker. It is remarkable that one man was able to get the government involved in this issue. As we can see, it can be important to stick to one’s values even in the face of losing a job. I was surprised by the magnitude of danger to workers in Hanford besides simply being exposed to radiation. The narrative also gave me more of an awareness of the extent to which the DOE will work to remain secretive. I’d like to leave you with a question. It is not intended to be rhetorical, and I would like you to consider it as objectively as possible: After learning about Ed, do you feel you can put your trust in the DOE, especially in regards to their accountability and honesty in the clean-up of Hanford?

This post was written by Nazila Dabestani, a Medical Anthropology and Global Health Senior at University of Washington affiliated with Heart of America Northwest.

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