SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Private contractors for the U.S. Department of Energy have spent at least $3.5 million in legal expenses to battle two critics of a massive construction project at the nation's most polluted nuclear site, according to a letter obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
The letter is from the chairwoman of a U.S. Senate subcommittee that is investigating whether there was retaliation against two Hanford Nuclear Reservation workers who raised safety concerns and then lost their jobs at the former nuclear weapons production site.
"The Department of Energy may be providing an incentive to contractors to engage in protracted litigation with whistleblowers by reimbursing the contractors' legal expenses," said the letter from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
The Energy Department said in a news release that such payments were lawful.
"In compliance with applicable federal regulations, the Department of Energy allows for provisional reimbursement of contractor legal expenses on a case-by-case basis for cost-reimbursable contracts," the agency said.
McCaskill heads the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which is investigating the treatment of former Hanford workers Walter Tamosaitis and Donna Busche.
The two longtime Hanford employees lost their jobs after raising concerns about the design and safety of the $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford. The one-of-a-kind plant is intended to convert up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from production of nuclear weapons materials into a stable glass form for disposal.
Work has been stopped on key portions of the long-delayed plant to resolve numerous technical issues.
Tamosaitis and Busche's concerns contributed to the halt in construction. The two have filed lawsuits as whistleblowers, and their cases remain in litigation. They met with Moniz last year to discuss their concerns.
Hanford is near the city of Richland, about 150 miles west of Spokane. For decades, it made plutonium for nuclear weapons, and now is engaged in a multibillion-dollar cleanup of the resulting radioactive wastes.