July 25, 1997 in Idaho

Another Worker Involved In Hanford Tank Explosion

Associated Press
 

Energy Department officials have disclosed that an additional worker was involved when a chemical tank exploded at the Hanford nuclear reservation May 14.

The worker was changing into protective clothing inside the Plutonium Reclamation Facility when the explosion rocked the plant, Energy Department officials said Wednesday.

“The individual in question was sprayed with dust and debris from the explosion,” said Steve Veitenheimer, a DOE official who investigated the blast.

The worker, whose name was not disclosed, was checked twice for radiation exposure, but none was found, he said. The worker went home that evening but was examined by doctors the next day because of ringing in his ears, Veitenheimer said.

Hanford officials also insisted at the briefing that there is no evidence that radiation escaped into the atmosphere as a result of the blast.

“There is no evidence of release of radioactive materials (plutonium) to the environment by an airborne pathway,” said a statement released by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Some traces of plutonium found outside three doors of the building may have been deposited there from earlier accidents, officials said.

Inside the plant, officials examined 54 air-sampling stations and found just a few showing radiation levels above normal.

“But taken collectively, they are less than 1 percent of the annual limit for occupational workers,” Veitenheimer said.

The blast knocked a hole in the roof and broke a fire sprinkler line that flushed tiny bits of atom bomb material down hallways.

Until this week, the U.S. Department of Energy had said that only 10 employees of contractor Fluor Daniel Hanford were affected in any way by the blast. Neither Fluor Daniel nor Energy Department officials had an immediate explanation for why the presence of the worker closest to the blast was not acknowledged earlier.

Officials also estimated the explosion has cost the taxpayers about $500,000 in lost cleanup time and extra work.

Investigators have blamed the explosion on an apparently neglected tank of hydroxylamine nitrate and nitric acid.

The Hanford mixture became condensed, grew hotter as it did so, and pressurized the 400-gallon steel tank to the point that it exploded like an over-inflated tire.

Eight electrical construction employees, a health physics technician and a security guard were near the Plutonium Reclamation Facility when the explosion occurred. The guard directed the electrical workers to flee in a direction that sent them under the chemical plume rolling through the plant’s roof.

Later, as many of them complained of lung irritation, the health technician took nasal smears to check for possible plutonium contamination - but locked the smears in a drawer instead of sending them for analysis. The mistake went undiscovered for a month.

Reportedly the smears were negative, but the workers’ health is still under study.

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