Blowing in the wind: Plutonium at former nuclear weapons site via Los Angeles Times

As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.

The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 workers.

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.


Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, asserts that the demolition project used too many unskilled workers, attempted to do the work too fast and failed to adopt known safety measures that would have helped contain the contamination.

“They took shortcuts and stupid risks,” Carpenter said. “They gambled and lost.”

The mishap occurred at one of the nation’s most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989. It was the notorious site where Harold McCluskey, later known as the Atomic Man, survived a 1976 explosion in which he was exposed to 500 times the occupational limit for radioactivity.

The exposures from the plutonium releases last year were minuscule by comparison, estimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime.


“It is very upsetting because they don’t [care],” said one exposed worker who would speak only on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. He said he was not given a kit to test for plutonium exposure until he asked for one in early December.

“They have no clue how I was exposed,” he said. “I look at it down the road and am mentally worried about it. It is emitting energy into my bones. Plus it is a poison. My wife is worried. My kids listen to the news and know what happened. I have to put it off in front of them as no big deal.”


Another longtime employee at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, or PFP, who met with a Times reporter, said the operation was out of control even before the demolition began. As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said.

“Nobody wanted to work at PFP,” he said. “People who had been working at Hanford for 30 years were getting out, saying this is insane.”

And as the project fell behind schedule, many of the workers were compelled to put in as much as 90 hours a week, he said.

“Everything we were told to do at work began to deviate from the plan,” he said.


In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off.

Not long after, the first plutonium was detected. Another series of dispersals occurred in June, which resulted in a short work stoppage. The workers at the plant said radiation alarms sounded throughout the facility, resulting in a chaotic mass evacuation. And then in December, a three-day series of dispersals was recorded and became the basis for what is now a four-month shutdown of the project.

“December was the most serious,” said Martell, the Health Department chief for radioactive air emissions. “Part of the reason we issued the letter was that events were growing in seriousness. The December event was the trigger.”

Alex Smith, who oversees the Hanford Site for the state Department of Ecology and shares oversight responsibility with the state Department of Health, said the decision to allow debris to accumulate probably increased the risk that winds could transport the dust. Plutonium was detected by monitors and collection plates about two miles away, near a public road, and potentially 10 miles away.


Work was stopped five years ago on a $16.8-billion waste treatment plant that is supposed to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into glass. Technical deficiencies in its design are still being studied, while delays mount. The plant was supposed to go online by 2022, but several years ago the Energy Department pushed back the full startup by 17 years to 2039.

Last year, a tunnel that stored railroad cars full of contaminated equipment collapsed. The Energy Department pumped the 358-foot long tunnel full of a concrete mixture. A decision is pending about what to do with a second storage tunnel 1,688 feet long.

The state attorney general, along with Hanford Challenge and a union, is suing the Energy Department for venting noxious gases from underground waste tanks over recent years, sickening workers.

This entry was posted in *English and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.