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Four-month delay in details of plutonium release at Hanford raises questions

Oct. 31, 2017 Updated Tue., Oct. 31, 2017 at 11:13 a.m.

This April 2017 aerial photo shows demolition of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility on the Hanford site. (DOE / U.S. Department of Energy)
This April 2017 aerial photo shows demolition of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility on the Hanford site. (DOE / U.S. Department of Energy)

The announcement this month that 31 Hanford workers were contaminated from a June 8 incident is raising more questions about how government agencies alert the public about the test results of leaks from one of the world’s most polluted sites.

The Department of Energy, which oversees the multibillion-dollar contracts paid to private companies tasked with cleaning up Hanford, alerted the public on June 8 of a plutonium release. Then on Oct. 18, it announced that some 31 workers were contaminated with low levels of radiation following the incident that triggered the “take cover” alarm on June 8 at the 580-square-mile site just outside of Richland.

Initial testing of contractors, who were working with heavy equipment to dismantle part of the line that produced much of this nation’s plutonium, found no contamination in their protective clothing or skin. However, 305 of the employees were later tested. Of those, 31 were found to have low levels of radiation in their systems.

Tom Carpenter, the executive director of watchdog group Hanford Challenge, said the four-month delay in government officials explaining the results of the exposure and testing has become the new norm.

“It’s been a trend at the Hanford site for many years,” Carpenter said. “If news does get released about something that’s not good, it’s often half the story. In many cases, the news is actually released by active workers.”

Carpenter questioned whether DOE officials required the testing of employees or made it voluntary. He also wanted to know why officials only tested workers’ fecal matter rather than doing a full-body count to test for contaminated particles that could have lodged in their lungs.

DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree confirmed the tests were only for those employees who asked for them. Officials did follow up and used the full-body scans, or lung counts, for four employees who requested them.

As part of a follow-up to the fecal scans, known as bioassay tests, officials conducted chest counts on 114 employees and took urine samples from 97 workers. All of those scans, including those of the four who requested lung counts, came back as negative, Tyree said.

“Employee safety remains our No. 1 goal as we encounter and overcome challenges inherent with demolishing what was once one of the most hazardous buildings in the DOE complex,” Tyree said, reading from a prepared statement. “We believe we have taken positive steps to further reduce the possibility of contamination during the remaining demolition work.”

He noted that of the 31 exposed employees, 18 had levels of 0.5 millirems over 50 years. The other 13 had higher doses, some 10 millirems over 50 years. For comparison, the average resident receives about 300 millirems a year from natural background radiation.

The workers’ scans came in “well below the administrative limit of 2,000 millirems per year for contract employees,” Tyree said.

But Carpenter, an attorney who has represented whistleblowers at Hanford since 1986, said any plutonium exposure is too much.

“There was no kind of concern expressed. Initially, they said no worker was exposed,” he said. “That turned out to be not right, but they didn’t change their tune. Their characterization was, ‘This was such a small amount.’ That’s the wrong response. Nobody should have been exposed to plutonium.”

Carpenter said he believes the safety protocols at Hanford have slipped.

“Twenty years ago if this happened at Hanford, the site would have been shut down. Outside inquiries would have opened up. People would have asked, ‘What went wrong? Why and how can we avoid it in the future?’ Now they shut down a couple of days and they go back to work.”

Tyree said employees of CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. began taking down the outer portion of the Plutonium Reclamation facility in November 2016. The building was used to extract plutonium out of waste from previous processes.

Following the June 8 contamination release, CH2M Hill shut down work on the reclamation facility and has not yet restarted. The company plans to take down a portion of the main plutonium processing facility next to the reclamation plant to prevent a wind-tunnel effect between the two buildings that could have contributed to the spread of the radiation.

Tyree said crews previously set up air monitors around the construction site that are designed to pick up contamination levels far below those that would put workers at risk. If they are set off, work stops to determine what’s going on, he said.

But Carpenter noted that the Washington Department of Health tests showed plutonium and americium particles in low levels at the Rattlesnake security barricade, which is 3 miles from the plant where the workers apparently caused the contamination release.

“How did it drift all the way to the highway?” he said.

Carpenter also questioned why the contractors didn’t deploy large tents to contain the dust from the demolition.

“That would have kept any radioactive clouds from coming out,” Carpenter said. “I understand they want to save money. But there are some risks that you don’t trade off.”

Tyree said contractors have responded to the incident by moving employees farther away from the demolition; adding exhausters, which draw contaminated air into the site, where it is filtered; and using dust suppression from ground-based foggers during the work.

Tyree said employee safety remains DOE’s top priority.

Workers produced plutonium for the nation’s top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II. Following the war, Hanford workers produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal during the decadeslong Cold War.

The Hanford Site was decommissioned in 1988 for federal cleanup.

Editors Note: The first two paragraphs were clarified on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 to reflect that the Department of Energy did alert the public on June 8 about a plutonium release.

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