Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this report stated this was the first time a worker who had inhaled plutonium was speaking publicly. Since then, we have learned that the Seattle Times spoke with a worker in December. Here is a link to that report,
A Hanford worker directly impacted by safety failures at an extremely dangerous demolition project at the site has granted an interview to KING 5.
The worker tested positive for inhalation of the potential lethal nuclear isotope of plutonium – a key ingredient to the production of nuclear bombs and warheads.
“I’m pissed. I’m scared, like we all are, that sooner or later it’s going to bite me and I’m going to end up with cancer,” said the contaminated worker.
For fear of retaliation, the worker does not want to be identified. Eight months ago, on June 8, the person was one of hundreds working on the demolition of Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP). The workers were told to ‘take cover’ as a ‘precaution’ because monitors detected radioactive plutonium particles could be in the air.
But the event ended up not being precautionary whatsoever. The contractor in charge of the demolition, CH2M Hill, had an enormous problem on its hands.
“It was complete chaos. It was a mess,” said the worker.
Indeed, radioactive particles had escaped and spread outside the demolition zone. Hundreds of workers were eventually tested. Thirty-one of them got bad news: They had inhaled or ingested plutonium, which emits alpha radiation, the worst kind of radiation to get inside your body.
“Plutonium will go to the bones and sit there for a long, long time,” said Dr. Erica Liebelt, a toxicologist and executive director, as well as medical director, of the Washington Poison Center.
“Your risks are lung cancer, liver cancer, and bone cancer. That’s where plutonium heads in the body.”
“(After being told no one was hurt) I was angry. You carry that with you for the rest of your life. It’s a cancer causer,” said the worker interviewed by KING 5.
The PFP is where, for decades, the Hanford workforce produced plutonium buttons, a key component of building nuclear warheads throughout the Cold War. The buildings left behind were the most lethally radioactive structures on the entire 586-square-mile Hanford reservation.
After that event in June CH2M Hill increased safeguards and promised to do better. But six months later the job got out of control again. More plutonium began escaping outside the demolition control zone on December 15. Instead of getting to the bottom of it right away, CH2M Hill waited two days to halt the job.
Radioactive particles ended up on all kinds of items including worker’s boots, office trailers, jersey barriers, tumbleweeds.
And elevated airborne levels of plutonium were recorded at an employee exit right next to a public highway.
“The response was awful. To me (waiting was) unforgivable, inexcusable. That should never have happened and this contractor ought to be on the hot seat,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the advocacy group Hanford Challenge.
The plutonium spread also made it onto cars. The KING 5 Investigators have found 36 cars total. Seven of them were personal vehicles, driven off the site by unsuspecting employees. The vehicles, with contamination on them, were driven into town and to their homes. One of those cars belongs to the worker who was contaminated internally six months earlier.
“We got in our cars and went home to our families. We hugged our wives, our children, our grandchildren and did our daily routines, so we don’t know what we took anywhere,” said the worker.
“Once you have contamination that gets on private party’s cars and then gets driven off the Hanford Site it’s a big concern for us,” said Alex Smith of the Washington state Department of Ecology. Smith is the state’s top-ranking regulator for the state over Hanford.
On January 9, the Department of Ecology and the EPA sent a joint letter to U.S Department of Energy officials to communicate their great concern. For the first time in Hanford’s history, the regulators enacted a provision allowing them to halt work on a project due to a “creation of danger” to people and the environment.
The U.S. Department of Energy owns Hanford and hires contractors such as CH2M Hill to carry out the work on its behalf.
The two regulatory agencies said the project demonstrated so much risk that they were shutting it down until the federal government could prove they could proceed safely.
“We hereby invoke Hanford Federal Facility and Consent Order (HFFACO) Article XXXII (“Creation of Danger”) and order all work at PFP to stop until Ecology and EPA determine that (the U.S. Department of Energy) has taken actions sufficient to allow the remaining work at PFP to continue,” wrote Smith and Laura Buelow of the EPA.
“If you get an airborne spread of contamination you risk contaminating rivers, agricultural products, and lands (and people) absolutely. So we want to make sure we’re trying to reign in all that in as much as we can,” said Smith.
Several Hanford workers said the PFP supervisors have been rushing the job for months in order to meet deadlines. That led to sloppy work and shortcuts taken, they said.
“Those of us with experience told them that this was going to happen. That if there was a (plutonium) spread, and there was going to be a spread, that it was going to be like this and they didn’t listen,” said the worker.
The KING 5 Investigators have obtained financial documents that could explain a motivation for a rush on the project. Hitting deadlines for the demolition could bring CH2M Hill a bonus of up to $51-million dollars. And if the project fell behind, the company could end up losing roughly $147,541 a day.
“They only care about their money. Their bonuses. That they make their deadline. That’s the only thing that matters to them,” said the PFP worker.
The Washington State Dept. of Health monitors radiation levels and the safety of the public at Hanford. On January 30, the Dept. of Health wrote a strongly worded letter to the Dept. of Energy expressing its serious concerns with the demolition, including a warning that rushing the job for financial reasons would be unacceptable.
“If work speed is increased with the intent of meeting a milestone, and doing so risks spreading contamination, we feel this should be discussed with lead agencies,” wrote Clark Halvorson, Assistant Secretary, Dept. of Health.
“..we are concerned if work resumes without better controls, a risk to the public may develop,” wrote Halvorson.
The US Dept. of Energy and its contractor have downplayed the risk to workers who have inhaled or ingested plutonium particles. They've said the doses were so small that should be compared to getting an x-ray or flying across the country in an airplane.
Experts, veteran workers and the Dept. of Health think otherwise. In the January 30 letter, Asst. Secretary Halvorson highlighted the risk of alpha radiation, the type emitted by plutonium.
"From a dosimetry perspective, spread of alpha contamination is troubling because of its greater potential for damage...in biological tissue and the potential for lifelong internal contamination," wrote Halvorson.
"(When they told me it was like an x-ray) I said 'That's not true. An x-ray does not stay with me forever and this will. I know (from Hanford training) that alpha is a cancer causer,'" said the worker. "They knew better and they are minimizing it."
KING 5 has found the PFP job has created a record number of Hanford workers testing positive for internal plutonium contamination. Since June, that number is at 45, with more results yet to come.
The Dept. of Energy Hanford website gives frequent PFP updates, available to the public. The most recent posting, on February 9, broke down test results specific to the December plutonium spread. They report 273 tests had been requested by workers. Of that number, 171 were returned negative for internal contamination, and 14 were positive. That would leave 88 test results yet to come back.
“It’s beyond criminal. It’s horrible what they’re doing to people, and they don’t care about the worker. We feel like we play a vital part in the cleanup. We shouldn’t be so easily discarded, or cast aside,” said the worker.
Federal Hanford officials and contractor representatives denied requests to be interviewed for this report. But in a memo sent to the workforce on January 24, Doug Shoop, the Department of Energy’s most senior executive over the PFP demolition wrote:
“(The contractor’s) sole focus at PFP will be entirely on the health and safety of the workforce, addressing any concerns that workers may have, continuing to insure that the PFP facility/debris and rubble piles are in a stable condition, and mitigation the potential for any additional spread of contamination.”
KING 5 has learned that on February 8, more plutonium contamination was found outside the safety zone. This was found on steps leading to a mobile officer trailer where PFP office staff work.