Since March 2014, nearly 60 workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state have sought medical attention for on-the-job exposure to chemical vapors released by highly toxic waste stored at the site, some as recently as August. At a public meeting held Wednesday in Pasco, Washington, Hanford workers described symptoms that include chronic headaches, respiratory problems, nerve damage and bloody urine.
The meeting, hosted by the United Association (U.A.) of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 598 and Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based environmental watchdog group, was convened following the February 10 release by Department of Energy contractor Washington River Protection Services (WRPS) of a “corrective action implementation plan.” This plan was developed in response to recommendations in a report from the Savannah River National Laboratory released in October 2014.
Commissioned in response to worker exposures at Hanford’s tank farms, the Savannah River report found ongoing emissions of toxic chemical vapors from waste tanks, inadequate worker health and safety procedures and evidence that “strongly suggests a causal link between chemical vapor releases and subsequent health effects.”
The underground storage tanks—known as “tank farms”—at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (D.O.E.) 586-acre Hanford site contain more than 50 million gallons of concentrated radioactive and chemical waste left from processing nuclear materials, including uranium and plutonium, for the U.S. weapons programs between 1943 and 1987.
Located adjacent to the Columbia River, the underground tanks hold highly radioactive sludge, mixtures of radioactive materials, heavy metals (including mercury, chromium and cadmium), volatile organic compounds and other toxic chemicals (among them ammonia, beryllium, formaldehyde, hydrofluoric acid and N-nitrosodimethylamine). For years, work has been underway to transfer this waste from degrading single-walled tanks to sturdier double-shelled tanks and also to empty and close out these tanks. There is also ongoing venting through evaporators to reduce the volume of stored liquids…