RICHLAND, Wash. - For almost half a century, the hulking factories across
a vast nuclear reservation here churned out the plutonium for most of the
nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, including the bomb used on Nagasaki.
But in the last several years, with the cold war long over, the
shuttered silence of the nine nuclear reactors on this
586-square-mile site has been followed by one of the world's largest
cleanups, costing $2 billion a year.
An army of workers numbering more than 11,000 faces the staggering
cleanup task at the Hanford complex in the high desert of
southeastern Washington, a project made more daunting with an
accelerated timetable that slashed cleanup projections to 35 years from
70. The quicker pace has led to charges among some doctors,
experts and lawmakers that speed has taken priority over worker
health and safety. And some warn that, in its dormancy, the vast
wasteland may pose even more danger to the cleanup workers than it did to
those who built the nation's arsenal here when the complex was in full
"Cleanup is a dangerous job," said Dr. Tim K. Takaro, a clinical
assistant professor at the University of Washington who treats
workers monthly at Hanford. Those at risk, he said, are the large numbers
of workers who "enter the dark corners of these buildings that have not
been touched for years."
The State of Washington has just begun a new investigation into
accusations by an advocacy group that the federal Department of
Energy and its on-site contractors are ignoring some of the risks
associated with the cleanup. The state attorney general, Christine O.
Gregoire, started the review after trying, her office said, without
success, to get Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to look into the
Federal energy officials and the Hanford cleanup contractors say they
have made every effort to protect the workers, asserting that the new
timetable did not result in hazardous conditions. A spokesman for the
Energy Department said the number of cases involving loss of work because
of injury has declined every year since 1998. And Jessie H. Roberson, the
assistant secretary of energy for environmental
management, said the department was approaching the cleanup with more
caution than before. "You can't even compare it to 10 years ago."
But, she added, "I don't know if there is more or less risk."
At the post-nuclear Hanford, the cleanup is tangled in legal battles over
workers' health, dangers to the environment and disputes among government
agencies about oversight of safety. Hanford's biggest
nuclear reactor closed in 1986, and the giant chemical processing complex
that handled some of the world's most hazardous materials was mostly shut
by 1988. But court battles continue between the federal government,
states and environmental groups over how the nuclear
waste will be handled and where it will be stored. Along with the
reactors, Hanford's 177 underground tanks hold 53 million gallons of
radioactive waste, and there are 270 billion gallons of contaminated
groundwater near the banks of the Columbia River.
For the thousands of workers assigned to the cleanup, the specter of
debilitating illness has resurfaced as the cleanup moves forward. Because
some former plant workers have become cleanup workers, it is difficult to
determine when they were exposed to the toxic
substances. Still, experts say some of the cleanup workers are
exhibiting illnesses like asbestos-related problems that are
different from the obvious radiation illness.
Dr. Takaro says he has found that the project brings workers into closer
contact with hazardous materials used to make bombs, like
beryllium, a metal with various uses that can cause incurable lung
disease if particles are inhaled.
The allegations under review by the state attorney general's office stem
from a report by the Government Accountability Project, a
nonprofit group that represents some Hanford workers in legal
actions. The report said that from 2002 through the middle of last year,
there were 45 incidents in which 67 workers required medical attention
because they were exposed to toxic vapors from the
"Hanford is in the process of creating a new generation of sick and
injured workers," the report said.
Tom Peterson, 51, an ironworker rigger who has worked at Hanford for 25
years, is one of 21 workers with chronic beryllium disease, an illness
unknown at the height of the cold war. Dr. Takaro said 84 more have been
"sensitized," to beryllium, which means they are at high risk of
contracting the full-blown disease.
"I went to work out there figuring I was going to support my family," Mr.
Peterson said. "I didn't expect to go out there and be poisoned and
nobody fess up to anything. If they would have told me ahead of time what
I was getting into, maybe I wouldn't have taken the job."
Electricians, a group not generally thought at high risk, are among those
showing symptoms of exposure to asbestos and other hazards, as well as
health physics technicians, who help monitor workers'
Last June, 12 workers inhaled radioactive gas and two also tested
positive for skin contamination when they were working on the "tank
farms," according to a report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities
Safety Board, an oversight panel established by Congress.
The report said that a health physics technician had "unsuccessfully
tried to stop the work." The job, on a moveable pipe used to pump waste
between tanks, had been downgraded by contractors from a "high
radiological risk work," to a medium one, the report said.
Joel A. Eacker, a vice president at CH2M Hill, the contractor on the tank
project, said those workers were exposed to a minimal amount of
radiation. He called the June incident "unfortunate," and said
procedures were changed.
Some newly sickened workers have been exposed to metal tools made of
beryllium alloys. These are favored at the tank farms because there is a
danger of hydrogen in the air, and the beryllium tools do not create
sparks, experts say.
Some of these workers argued that on-site doctors under contract were
reluctant to diagnose illnesses that could be related to their work. A
diagnosis of beryllium sensitivity, for example, would be important
because workers who have it, or whose blood tests show they have been
sensitized, are supposed to be transferred to prevent further
exposure. In addition, their chances for compensation depend on the
disease being work-related.
Mr. Peterson and two other workers with chronic beryllium disease said in
interviews that outside doctors issued their diagnoses, years after
Hanford site doctors said other lung problems caused their
symptoms. Those included primarily fatigue and shortness of breath, and
abnormal lung X-rays.
The three men refer to themselves as the "Hanford Hemorrhoids,"
because they have organized with other workers and loudly criticized the
Energy Department and its medical contractor, the Hanford
Environmental Health Foundation.
The foundation has held the contract for treating workers at Hanford for
38 years, but in January lost a competition for renewal; its
contract expires in March.
Craig Hall, 51, an electrician at Hanford for 23 years, says he was the
first to receive the chronic beryllium disease diagnosis.
Foundation doctors, he said, told him in 1991 that X-rays showed
possibly lung cancer, tuberculosis or sarcoidosis, a fibrotic lung
disease. "If you have an injury or something, I honestly believe they do
everything in the world they can to do you under," Mr. Hall said.
The sick workers have various ailments: persistent cough, night
sweats, extreme fatigue, and Mr. Hall, who learned he had the disease in
1996, said he had gout and had been hospitalized because of
blockage of his salivary glands caused by the beryllium in his system.
In an e-mail message, Lee T. Ashjian, the president and chief
executive of the Hanford health foundation, defended the nonprofit
medical group's approach.
Beryllium screening and case management, Mr. Ashjian said, were
"managed according to the highest standard of care." Workers can
volunteer for blood tests, he said, and those who test positive are
"assured timely referral for diagnosis and treatment."
Geoff T. Tyree, a spokesman for Fluor Hanford, one of the major
contractors at the site, said that the Energy Department instituted a
beryllium disease prevention program in the late 1990's. All
contractors must identify places where beryllium may be present and
Mr. Tyree acknowledged, however, that contractors were still
identifying buildings where workers could come into contact with the metal.
"We believe the program is protective of employees," he said.
"Certainly there is room for improvement. It's a developing program and a
developing health issue."
Some members of Congress have been urging the department to exert more
authority over the site contractors. And the oversight panel set up by
Congress does not want to see safety rules relaxed. It has
taken issue with a plan by the Energy Department that would allow Hanford
contractors and other sites to draw up their own plans for meeting safety
John Conway, chairman of the oversight panel, said the panel objected to
the agency's plan because it would mean that many rules and
requirements would be softened, or considered merely guidance,
without enforcement teeth.
Ms. Roberson, of the Energy Department, disagreed, saying the agency
would still control safety standards. But Representative John D.
Dingell, Democrat of Michigan and the ranking minority member of the
House Energy and Commerce Committee, complained in a recent letter to
Secretary Abraham that "there has been very little evidence that
D.O.E. contractors have made the interest of their workers a foremost
Mr. Dingell added, "In the past, weapons production took priority over
health and safety; currently, accelerated cleanup schedules and reduced
cleanup budgets are taking priority."
The contractors are on notice that they must ensure safe working
conditions, said Joseph Davis a spokesman for the Energy Department. "We
will not put at any risk any of our workers for the benefit of a faster
cleanup," Mr. Davis said. "We can terminate them any time if we think
they're doing something really stupid."