Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2021
By Kelly Lundeen
Three workers in the Hanford Reservation plutonium production cleanup program spent 24 hours at the Richland, Washington hospital June 18, 2021, “after reporting headaches, nausea and rapid heart rates at one of the nuclear reservation’s tank farms. The symptoms were consistent with those linked to inhalation of vapors from the toxic waste held in underground tanks,” the Tri-City Herald first reported August 3.
The Herald reported further that, “Nine of the workers were evaluated by the on-site occupational medical provider…. Since then, four more workers … have asked for medical evaluations.”
Hanford Challenge, a watchdog organization focused on the 570-square mile site, reported in a release, “This mass vapor exposure incident followed the Hanford contractor’s decision to downgrade the respiratory protections for tank farm workers.”
The Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington state is responsible for having produced two-thirds of the plutonium used in the US nuclear arsenal, including the very first atom bomb, code named “trinity,” detonated outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the plutonium bomb, dubbed “fat man,” dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The Hanford site is now the most radioactively-contaminated site in the United States, perhaps the worst EPA-designated Superfund site, and is undergoing decades of “cleanup” work.
Information about workers sickened at Hanford trickles out slowly. Neither the Department of Energy, nor Hanford site management have made any announcement of the recent accident to the public or the State of Washington.
However, recommendations from the recent Hanford Healthy Energy Workers Board could provide part of the answer to the lack of information and inadequate health care for workers. The Board was created by the Washington State legislature to “conduct an unmet health care needs assessment for
Hanford workers and develop recommendations on how these health care needs can be met.”
A final report issued in June included the results of interviews with 1,600 current and former workers. The board found that 57% of workers reported being exposed in a toxic or radioactive incident. Almost one-third reported long-term toxic exposures.
Recommendations include creating a Hanford Healthy Energy Workers Center as an independent entity for disseminating medical and scientific literature concerning exposures, a sort of library where the hundreds of studies of occupational health risks, exposure data, and best health practices would be gathered and accessible for workers.
Weeks after the June 18th exposures, some workers reported continued symptoms. “This lack of information sharing and reporting smells like a cover-up,” said Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of Hanford Challenge. “We do not want to see a return to downgraded worker protections that result in routine vapor exposures. The cycle of exposures must end at Hanford, and meaningful and long-lasting regulations should be enacted to assure that Hanford tank farm workers can conduct a cleanup without risking their own health and safety,” Carpenter said.
Decommissioning and cleanup of the site slowly inch forward. A vitrification plant is projected to begin converting some of the least radioactive waste into a more stable glass form by 2023, which will then be disposed of within the Hanford site. In August a two-thirds mile long pipeline connected radioactive waste tanks to the vitrification plant.
Meanwhile, radioactively contaminated water continues to flow into the Columbia River and groundwater, radioactive waste tanks continue to leak, and 11,000 workers continue the hazardous work of decommissioning the Hanford site.