The federal government will try to control, capture and eliminate dangerous vapors coming out of the nuclear waste tanks on the Hanford Reservation as a way to avoid a pending legal battle with Washington.
An agreement between the state and the Department of Energy announced Wednesday calls for a series of immediate steps to protect people who work around the tanks and long-term strategies to reduce the vapors.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the agreement puts an upcoming trial on hold, but does not dismiss the lawsuit the state filed three years ago to address hundreds of workers who reported medical problems stemming from the vapors.
Ferguson accused the federal government, which oversees the area where weapons-grade nuclear materials were made during World War II through the 1980s, of “a culture of indifference” to the problems of workers.
The tanks hold some 150 million gallons of radioactive chemical waste from the processes to make plutonium and other nuclear warhead materials. Vapors sometimes leak from the tanks. Over the decades, thousands may have suffered from health problems due to coming in contact with the vapors, said Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, which works on health and safety issues on the reservation.
“The federal government did not do right by their workers,” Ferguson said. If Hanford were located close to Washington, D.C, and its workers were the children of members of Congress, it wouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get changes, he contended.
Under the agreement, workers will immediately be supplied with air and respirators while the government tests new systems to capture or eliminate the vapors. The federal government will test a treatment system that may be able to capture or destroy 99 percent of hazardous substances vented from the tanks. The Energy Department will also test a system that could send vapors high into the air with a jet turbine. The agreement calls for a system to be in place by 2022.
The department will share monitoring information and pay the state and Hanford Challenge $925,000 to reimburse their costs and fees. If the federal government doesn’t live up to the agreement, the trial that is currently on hold will be back on track.
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