Scientist calls out nuclear waste dump issues, gets fired

Dr. Walter Tamosaitis sued for whistleblower protection and told his story to Congress
CBS News

(CBS News) A nuclear engineer who blew the whistle on dangerous problems at the nation's largest radioactive waste dump, is out of a job.

For more than a decade, nuclear engineer Dr. Walter Tamosaitis has spoken out about the potentially catastrophic hazards surrounding the multi-billion dollar nuclear waste treatment plant at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state.

Possible radioactive leak into soil at Hanford
Watch: Lethal and Leaking

"My job was to point out that there was a problem, to identify the problem, and to offer solutions to it," Tamosaitis told correspondent Carter Evans.

Dr. Walter Tamosaitis sued for whistleblower protection and told his story to Congress CBS News

His biggest concern is a design flaw that could lead to a deadly hydrogen explosion, or worse -- a nuclear chain reaction.

"With the prevailing winds, it would carry the radiation and the contamination eastward," he said. "So the areas a couple hundred miles away would be contaminated."

The Hanford site holds 56 million gallons of nuclear waste. Construction was basically stopped because of red flags raised by Tamosaitis.

But instead of appreciation from his employer, Tamosaitis got a demotion, and was banished to the basement. He no longer knew whom he reported to, and was not invited to any safety meetings or communication meetings.

So, in 2011, he sued for whistleblower protection and told his story to Congress.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, called Tamosaitis' testimony crucial. "In effect, the treatment of Dr. Tamosaitis makes a mockery out of a pledge that whistleblowers are going to get a fair shake," Wyden said.

Now, Tamosaitis has been terminated, and though it is not the way he expected his 44-year career to end, he said standing up for what he believes in was worth it, and he would do it all over again.

In a statement, URS -- Tamosaitis' employer, and one of the site's subcontractors -- said it doesn't comment on personnel matters, but it "encourages employees to raise any concerns about safety."

To watch Carter Evans' complete report, click on the video player above.