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Senators want answers on Hanford radioactive contamination spread

By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

The Hanford nuclear reservation workforce must have confidence that Hanford officials are putting safety ahead of legal deadlines and financial interests, said the U.S. senators for Washington state.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., were prompted by the spread of radioactive contamination at Hanford this month to send a letter with their concerns on Friday to James Owendoff, the acting head for Department of Energy nuclear cleanup projects, including at Hanford.

But their concerns go beyond the recent spread of radioactive contamination in two incidents this month at the Plutonium Finishing Plant demolition project to other high risk projects at Hanford, they said.

The senators also have been in touch with the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, according to Cantwell’s staff.

The senators said they support the current halt to demolition at the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

After demolition was completed on the most contaminated part of the plant – its Plutonium Reclamation Facility – specks of radioactive contaminants were found Dec. 15 through early this week beyond radiological control boundaries around demolition areas. Workers wear protective gear inside the control boundaries.

Specks of contamination have been found on or in 14 vehicles, including two that may have been driven home by workers Dec. 15 before the contamination was discovered. Seven homes were checked for contamination, with none found.

In addition, 257 workers have requested checks to see if they inhaled airborne radioactive contamination in the last week.

Air monitors have not detected contamination in the most recent incident, but earlier in the month lapel air monitors worn by some workers tested positive for low levels of airborne radioactive contamination. The workers were not close enough to the demolition project to be wearing respiratory protection.

“(We) encourage you not to allow demolition to continue until all facts from the past two weeks are known, fully understood and communicated to the workforce and public,” the senators said.

Working conditions must be improved, they said.

The senators asked for information on the actions local DOE officials took or did not as they oversaw the demolition project, the senators said. They also instructed DOE to directly engage with local unions.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant was used during the Cold War to convert plutonium in a liquid solution into pucks or oxide powder to be shipped to the nation’s nuclear weapons production plants.

Work started about 20 years ago to clean out the plant and demolition of the key areas of the plant began about 13 months ago. Hanford officials have said that just a few weeks of demolition are needed to tear the rest of the plant down to the ground once work resumes.

The same contractor demolishing the plant, CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., also is responsible for other high hazard and high risk activities at the Hanford nuclear reservation, the contractors pointed out.

The projects include:

    Moving highly radioactive sludge stored in underwater containers at the K West Basin near the Columbia River to temporary storage in T Plant in central Hanford.

    Digging up a spill of high-level radioactive waste beneath the 324 Building, which is just north of Richland and near the Columbia River.

    Stabilizing the PUREX plant tunnel holding 28 rail cars loaded with obsolete equipment that is highly contaminated with radioactive waste. Another waste storage tunnel at the plant partially collapsed in May.

“The workforce must have confidence that DOE and CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. are putting safety ahead of milestones, deadlines and award fees,” the senators said.

“We owe the men and women who work at PFP (the Plutonium Finishing Plant) and across the Hanford site in hazardous conditions with some of the most dangerous radioactive and chemical materials the highest safety standards,” they said.

The two senators also are waiting for the results of a GAO review of safety they requested after the collapse of the older of the two PUREX waste storage tunnels.

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