Hanford workers exposed to dangerous vapors, report says

By Nicholas K. Gerianos
The Associated Press
Friday, July 16, 2004

SPOKANE — Some workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation have been exposed to dangerous vapors from radioactive waste storage tanks, said a federal report released today.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated complaints by workers that their health was placed at risk from working around underground storage tanks containing wastes left from the production of nuclear weapons materials.

The agency found that workers were exposed to vapors during work activities, and that some workers reported acute and chronic health effects after vapor exposures.

Workers have not been routinely provided with respirators when working in tank farms, and it can be difficult to get one, the report said.

Medical monitoring after vapor exposures is not consistent, it added, and analysis of air samples collected from the tanks can take weeks or months to complete, potentially resulting in errors due to sample decay.

"NIOSH investigators determined a potential for significant occupational exposures and health effects from vapors released from the hazardous waste storage tanks," the report said. "Vapor constituents may be present at sufficiently high concentrations to pose a health risk to workers."

At a minimum, workers on the reservation near Richland should be provided with personal respirator equipment when working in the so-called tank farms, NIOSH said.

NIOSH interviewed 54 managers and employees of CH2M Hill Hanford Group, the private contractor that operates the tanks. The agency also studied various documents involving vapor sampling, checked medical records and watched employees at work.

Hanford was created as part of the Manhattan Project in World War II to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. Nuclear wastes are stored there in 177 underground storage tanks.

NIOSH conducted its evaluation in March at the request of tank farm employees and the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of River Protection, which runs the Hanford site.

"ORP is pleased that the recommendations presented by NIOSH are consistent with the findings of other assessments and investigative actions regarding vapor exposures in the tank farms," the Hanford agency said.

"A comprehensive corrective action plan based on previous assessments of tank farm safety will be delivered to ORP shortly, and we will compare that plan with the NIOSH findings to determine if there are additional protective measures the tank farms contractor should adopt."