May 17, 1997 in City

Safety Officials Blast Hanford Warning Delay Three-Hour Lapse Following Explosion Increased The Threat Of Radiation

Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press

Emergency officials complained Friday about a three-hour delay in notifying them of an explosion at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex.

If there had been a release of radioactivity, the delay would have slowed the evacuation of area residents, Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim said.

“We should have been immediately notified,” Lathim said. “It shouldn’t have taken them long to see it was a serious potential problem.”

The Department of Energy still does not know what chemicals were in the tank or what caused the explosion at 7:56 p.m. Wednesday.

The Energy Department said no one was injured and no radiation or chemicals were released in the explosion in the Plutonium Reclamation Facility building.

“We probably won’t have anything until sometime early next week,” DOE spokesman Keith Taylor said in Richland, where Hanford management is located.

The state Department of Health is not ready to say nothing was released, said Al Conklin, head of the Division of Radiation Protection. Agency workers are examining their own radiation monitors in the region, and have found no evidence of a chemical release, Conklin said.

“I’m still not going to say nothing got away,” Conklin said.

He was among numerous regulators and emergency response officials who criticized the DOE for withholding word of the explosion.

Franklin County is immediately downwind of the Hanford site, in south-central Washington, but Lathim said local officials were not notified until shortly after 11 p.m.

In three hours, a cloud of radioactive material could have reached people living near the site before they could be evacuated, Lathim said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not receive notification until 2:15 a.m. Thursday, six hours after the explosion, said public affairs officer Mike Howard in Bothell.

“This was not timely,” Howard said.

Mike McCaffree of the state Emergency Operations Center said his office wasn’t notified until 11:22 p.m., despite a rule requiring DOE to notify the state and counties within 15 minutes after classifying the hazard.

The accident was classified as an alert before 9:30 p.m., McCaffree said.

“We are already working with DOE to find out why that happened and how we can prevent that from happening in the future,” McCaffree said.

Taylor, of DOE, said Hanford officials were busy communicating among themselves in the early stages of the emergency.

“We need to let other people at Hanford know what is going on,” Taylor said. “This process takes time.”

“Everybody can’t be first,” Taylor said.

Hanford officials knew quickly that the accident would be confined to the 560-square-mile Hanford site, and evacuations were not necessary, Taylor said.

It is still unclear what chemicals were in the 1,570-liter metal tank.

Hanford manager Lloyd Piper initially said it contained hydroxylamine nitrate. But James McCracken, a nuclear engineer with the federal Energy Department, said later that the tank hadn’t contained hydroxylamine nitrate for at least six years and instead contained nitric acid.

Both hydroxylamine nitrate and nitric acid were once used at the building to recover plutonium from waste materials produced at Hanford.

The reclamation facility is part of the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which produced plutonium powder, ultimately for nuclear warheads. About 10.7 tons of plutonium still are at the plant, about 150 feet away from the explosion.

The plant stopped production in 1989.

The plant has a long history of accidents and explosions.

Sabotage has been ruled out as a possible cause of the blast, officials said. A bomb-sniffing dog was led through the plant after the explosion.

The blast blew the lid off the tank, rupturing a fire sprinkler line that flooded the fourth-floor room and sent water down an elevator shaft to a parking lot before water and electricity to the building were shut off, Piper said.

There was no fire and the building’s radiation containment and ventilation systems remained intact, he said.

Officials reported a brown-yellow plume was seen after the explosion.

Filters in ventilation stacks were checked and showed no signs of radiation or chemical contamination, Piper said.

Nine workers were taken to a hospital as a precaution after reporting a metallic taste in their mouths. They were examined and released.

Hanford produced weapons-grade plutonium beginning with the Manhattan Project of World War II. The reservation is considered the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site and contains more than half the nation’s nuclear weapons wastes.

Cleanup is expected to take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars.

xxxx CHRONOLOGY Wednesday 7:56 p.m. Tank explosion reported in Hanford’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility. 9:30 p.m. Accident classified as an alert. 11 p.m. Franklin County, immediately downwind, and local officials are notified. 11:22 p.m. State Emergency Operations Center notified.

Thursday 2:15 a.m. The Federal Emergency Management Agency notified.

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