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A nuclear waste site where the biggest fear isn’t radiation, but coronavirus via The Guardian

For more than a month, coronavirus has brought cleanup of a 586-square-mile decommissioned nuclear production complex in south-eastern Washington state to a near standstill.

Most of the more than 11,000 employees at the Hanford site were sent home in late March, with only essential workers remaining to make sure the “most toxic place in America” stays safe and secure.

Now with signs that Washington has turned a corner with the virus and the state’s governor slowly starting to relax some safety measures, Hanford workers are looking at the very real possibility of returning to work.

But after facing those initial few weeks of Washington’s coronavirus crisis on-site at Hanford, workers say they received little information and even fewer safety measures from leadership, and some employees are terrified by the prospect.

“When you come back to work, what’s the expectation [for protections]?” asked a maintenance and operations worker at Hanford, who asked not to be identified by the Guardian to protect his job. “There are none.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the Hanford site produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, including the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki at the end of the second world war. The site was also relied on heavily during the cold war, ultimately becoming the country’s main supplier of plutonium for its nuclear weapons.


A radiological control technician, who has worked at Hanford for more than 15 years, said trailers continued to be shared by as many as 50 people and each Monday morning 200 employees would come together for a meeting in a single room.

When workers finished at one of the many contaminated areas of Hanford, they needed to be checked for radiation before leaving. Technicians would stand next to them, without a mask on, running a handheld device over their body – being sure to stay within a quarter of an inch of their skin to ensure accurate readings.

In a single hour, one of these radiological control technicians, may have surveyed as many as 30 people.

“There’s no way to keep that social distancing. You’re right up in somebody’s face, they’re breathing on you, they’re sweaty,” said the technician, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation at work.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a not-for-profit watchdog organization in Seattle, said he received at least 10 emails and phone calls in two weeks in March from employees worried about Hanford not providing face masks or gloves or requiring social distancing to protect them from coronavirus.


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