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Behind the Story: When does an ongoing story warrant an investigation?

Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

Photo credit:
Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

(Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of our "Behind the Story" look at coverage of the Hanford nuclear reservation's environmental issues.)

Determining when an ongoing issue becomes an issue worth investigating isn’t always easy.

Craig Welch, an environmental reporter for The Seattle Times who juggles topics from oceans to forests, also keeps his eye on the Hanford nuclear reservation, which had become, as one of his stories stated, an "atomic mess after 40 years of bomb-making."  

In Welch’s investigative stories "Big cleanup questions still loom at Hanford" and "Will giant mixers keep nuclear waste stable?" the hard part wasn’t tracking down the documents, which he said were all public. The challenge was determining which highly technical documents were important and whether employees’ complaints warranted a big story.

 "Hanford has been around for a very long time," Welch said. "It has been the subject of many government investigations."

A combination of events led Welch to decide he had a story back in January 2011, and his experience as an environmental reporter helped him decipher language from "off the charts brainy physicists and nuclear engineers." The articles in January led to another story five months later on a new federal investigation by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. 

For more than 10 years,  the Department of Energy and its lead contractor, Bechtel National, have been trying to create a facility to turn millions of gallons of nuclear waste into glass. The project costs had tripled, the completion date was extended by eight years  and journalists were starting to write about complaints from workers and watchdog groups. 

But when Walt Tamosaitis, a high-level Hanford engineer, said he had been demoted after insisting on "large-scale lab tests" to address safety concerns, Welch got curious.  

 "People started confirming his claims. A lot of it was off the record, but they were pointing me to public technical documents," Welch said.

The watchdog group Hanford Challenge also contacted Welch to tell him there was more to the story than Tamosaitis being demoted.

 "They helped me get access to documents that led me to believe it was worth looking into more," Welch said. "Up to that, there was a lot of 'he said, she said.' No one was talking about plutonium, the problems for potential for fires and explosions inside the pipes, and that is what they had been collecting documents of."

After much research, Welch was able to set the record straight.

"Hanford's waste holds up to 1,700 pounds of plutonium-239, scattered among 53 million gallons of other poisons. It is a heavy element and will want to settle at the bottom of these drums. Over time, too many particles could gather and trigger a chain reaction.

"It happened in Japan in 1999: Reprocessing-plant workers combined too much uranium. Suddenly, there was a flash of blue light and an intense surge of radiation. Two workers were vomiting within the hour. One died in 12 weeks, another in seven months."

The mixers are supposed to keep the particles moving, but they have never been used on this large of a scale or with this particular mix of chemicals and radioactive isotopes, Welch wrote. "And some of Hanford's holding vessels are installed in "black cells," areas already expected to be so hot with radioactivity that no human or equipment can get in to fix them. That means nothing must break down during decades of operation."

But before he could write such clear explanations, Welch had to locate and interpret the documents.

He used the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s online database, which stored  correspondence between the board and the Department of Energy. The information on the website can be very technical, he said. Unless someone is already familiar with the issues at hand, he or she will probably need expert advice.

"My personal philosophy is with stories like this you often need a jungle guide, and I had one. It’s a source in one of these government agencies that really helped me understand how these things work," Welch said.

Welch’s "jungle guide" wouldn’t go on the record.

"And I am not a big fan of going off the record, but I needed somebody who didn’t really have an ax to grind and who could really explain what these things mean. He was essential."

He also spoke with scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a government research laboratory, to bounce off his understanding of how the pieces of information fit together.

These scientists, like Tamosaitis, the on the record high-ranking whistleblower, posed a small problem.  

"The whistleblower, he wanted a lot of people to understand, wanted everyone to understand," Welch said. "That wasn’t his strength. Talking to him was like talking with someone that speaks another language."

With the help of Welch’s stories, Tamosaitis and others were finally heard.

Johanna Somers is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism

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