- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 10, 2015

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - A plan to reduce the exposure of Hanford Nuclear Reservation employees to hazardous chemical vapors while working on radioactive waste storage tanks will be adopted immediately, Hanford contractor Washington River Protection Solutions said Tuesday.

Hanford contains the nation’s largest amount of radioactive waste, left over from the Cold War production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The most dangerous wastes are stored in underground tanks on the sprawling site near Richland, Washington.

More than 40 workers in the past two years have reported being sickened by chemical vapors while working near the tanks, but the cause remains unknown.

The new plan, based on recommendations last year from a panel of experts, will be adopted immediately. It called for improving sampling and vapor detection technology; expanding sampling and identification gases in the tanks; increasing real-time monitoring of the tanks; and evaluation and deployment of new vapor abatement technologies.

“Using the recommendations from the report, we developed specific actions we plan to implement in a sustained, multi-year, two-phased effort to further protect workers from potential exposure to chemical vapors,” WRPS President Dave Olson said.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which manages Hanford, said the goal is to reduce risks to workers around the deadly wastes.

The Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report, released last October, contained 47 specific recommendations to reduce chemical vapor exposure to workers.

A number of actions have already been implemented, including the use of personal respiratory protective gear around the tanks, WRPS said.

A WRPS team will lead implementation of the plan. Future actions will be reviewed and, as needed, revised to reflect new research, the company said.

“We are confident that the steps outlined in this plan will improve the environment where we work,” Olson said.

The panel of experts concluded the Energy Department did not have an adequate system to detect whether harmful vapors were sickening workers.

More than 40 workers have reported smelling vapors and then becoming ill after working around some of Hanford’s 177 underground storage tanks. The workers were checked by doctors and cleared to return to work.

The state of Washington has indicated it intends to sue the Department of Energy over the vapor releases. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the federal government has had decades to deal with the problem.

He said he has received reports of nosebleeds, headaches, watery eyes, burning skin, contact dermatitis, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throats, expectorating, dizziness and nausea. He said some workers have long-term disabilities.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. About 56 million gallons of the most highly radioactive and toxic wastes are stored in the underground tanks, some of which have leaked.

Cleanup of the site costs some $2 billion per year, and the work is expected to take decades.

The Department of Energy has said monitors worn by workers have found no samples with chemicals close to the federal limit for occupational exposure.


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