By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS, Associated Press
SPOKANE — Seven decades after making key portions of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are being exposed to radiation as they tear down buildings that helped create the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Dozens of workers demolishing a plutonium processing plant from the 1940s have inhaled or ingested radioactive particles in the past year, and even carried some of that radiation into their vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The incidents have prompted the federal government, along with state regulators, to halt the demolition of the sprawling Plutonium Finishing Plant until a safe plan can be developed.
The contamination has also shaken confidence in a massive cleanup of Hanford, the nation’s most polluted nuclear weapons production site. The work costs the federal treasury around $2 billion a year.
“This is a very disturbing set of incidents,” said Tom Carpenter, head of the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge.
The Energy Department, which owns Hanford, has launched an independent investigation into the spread of radiation at the plant. The investigation will be conducted by an agency office that is not connected to work at Hanford.
Radioactive particles are known to have contaminated 42 workers, which led to the shutdown of demolition, the agency has said.
Carpenter said widespread worker contamination has been rare at Hanford in recent decades. Plutonium production ended in the 1980s and the site in 1989 switched its focus to cleanup of nuclear wastes.
“It’s one of the more serious events to happen in the age of cleanup at Hanford,” Carpenter said. “There have been other incidents, but none rose to the level of plutonium contamination of this many people and private vehicles and being found miles and miles away.”
The plant took liquid plutonium and shaped it into hockey puck-sized disks for use in nuclear warheads.
Demolition on the plant began in late 2016.
Carpenter complained that the Energy Department did not act quickly to contain the contamination after the June incident in which radioactive particles escaped and traces were found inside 31 workers. Eleven more workers were found to be contaminated after the December incident, which prompted the government to shut down demolition.
Carpenter expected there would be more incidents of radiation escaping into the environment.
“Hanford is a very contaminated site that has lots of old facilities that are getting older,” Carpenter said. “That’s a bad combination.”
The Washington Department of Ecology, which along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates Hanford cleanup, said the two agencies will not yet allow demolition work to resume at the plant.
“We’re not convinced that Energy has adequate safeguards or monitoring in place to ensure safe operations,” the Ecology Department said in a press release. “This clearly is unacceptable for worker and public health and safety.”