Decades of Deception at Hanford

June 23, 2014


There is so much in this article that should be read that I’ve decided to leave the article exactly as it is. For those of you who do want to know what is going and who have read other posts on our RadCast Hanford pages, I know you will get a lot from this article. For those of you looking in, again, a great article. Many many thanks to Susannah Frame for her diligence and superb reporting on Hanford.

Workers who get exposed to toxic chemicals or radioactive materials at the Hanford Site can turn to an on-site medical clinic for immediate help and regular check-ups. The center, operated by different private companies over the years, is an important resource for a workforce that is responsible for cleaning up the most contaminated site in the country.

But the KING 5 Investigators found that workers who turn to the clinic for help aren’t always told the truth about the effects of toxic chemicals — a pattern of deception that dates back to the 1940s, when plutonium production at the site was in its early years.

The case of Don Slaugh, a 24-year Hanford veteran, is an example of how medical providers — paid by the Department of Energy — hide critical information from workers.

Slaugh, a health physics technician and union safety representative, has been exposed to toxic vapors twice in his career. He said his first exposure, in 1996, knocked him off his feet.

“I basically was overcome by the chemicals, and I remember being dragged out of the area by a co-worker,” Slaugh recalled in a recent interview.

He was taken to the on-site medical clinic where health staff later told him he suffered no long-term effects from the exposure.

“They determined I had some spots on my lungs with this inhalation and told me at the time I’d be fine,” he said.

But Slaugh was not OK. The chemicals he breathed in left him with an incurable lung condition called reactive airway disease. Today, he’s left with just 50 percent of his lung function, and he requires oxygen at night when he sleeps.

“I can’t go anywhere without an oxygen machine,” he said.

Slaugh didn’t know until years later that the vapors he’d been exposed to had done permanent damage to his body. But the on-site medical clinic did know — and hid it from him for a decade.

Slaugh only learned how sick he really was after a doctor at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center reviewed his medical files.

In 2005 clinical notes about Slaugh’s case, Dr. Jordan Firestone, the director of Harborview’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the time, wrote: “At that time (1996) he (Slaugh) was not aware of residual effects (to his lungs) following that initial exposure. However, as described below, his serial spirometry (breathing tests) during subsequent occupational surveillance (checkups) for respiratory clearance (to go back to work) by the (Hanford) site Medical Director indicates that it was about that time that his spirometric measurements took a turn for the worse (showed lung disease).”

“I feel they didn’t do their jobs as doctors. They betrayed the oath they took,” said Slaugh. “The whole time I was getting chronic lung infections and bronchitis, and I had no idea what was going on. I felt deceived. It’s a joke, a sham.”

Workers still at risk

Since mid-March of this year, 37 Hanford workers have been sent to the on-site medical center or a nearby hospital in Richland after being exposed to chemical vapors escaping from huge tanks holding nuclear waste.

Government studies have found nearly 2,000 toxic chemicals inside the tanks — the leftovers from the messy work of plutonium production during the Second World War and the Cold War. Caustic chemicals were used to melt uranium fuel rods from nuclear reactors at the site, then small amounts of plutonium were removed from the dissolved fuel.

Waste from the process was pumped into 177 tanks. Decades later, it remains deadly and will continue to be until the technology is developed to permanently dispose of it. The waste, hot from radioactive decay, vents toxic vapors at irregular intervals. While special filters keep radiation from escaping from the tanks, the toxic gases pass through unstopped into the atmosphere around the tank farms.

Hiding information from the beginning

The dangers posed by the plutonium production process were known from the very start. But documents show that federal officials were encouraged to downplay safety risks for fear of upsetting workers and slowing production.

One 1948 memo urges managers to keep a lid on a study on radiation effects, noting there could be a “shattering effect on the morale” if workers know there was “substantial reasons to question” their safety. If the study got out, the memo said, employees could demand “extra hazardous pay,” and fears among the workforce could “increase the number of claims” against the government.

Another memo, written in 1947, recommends that managers alter documents about health risks. The author writes that information that could “encourage claims” against the government “should be reworded or deleted.”

More recently, a 1997 scientific study that warned that even small exposures to toxics at the site could cause cancer and other diseases was buried by the government. That study was prepared by scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Richland-based lab operated by a U.S. Department of Energy contractor.

Bob Alvarez, a former presidential adviser on nuclear waste policy, said the 1997 study should have been brought to his attention — and shared with workers. In 1997 Alvarez was a senior headquarters official with the Department of Energy and worked directly on Hanford issues.

“We were totally unaware of this – it was buried,” Alvarez said, “…when you have a study that basically is saying that workers are maybe experiencing a phenomenally high risk of latent disease as a result of exposure to these toxic vapors, this is sort of a real strong signal that you’ve got to drop what you’re doing and fix this problem.”

The Dept. of Energy tells us the study results were not made public because another scientist found flaws in the work. “Considering the merits of the report, there are serious errors of concept and process that challenge its value,” wrote Melvin First, on Harvard School of Public Health letterhead. KING has found that First had retired from Harvard years prior and that none of the other panel members were associated with the school. In addition First was well known as a hired gun for the tobacco industry who wrote articles about second-hand smoke being harmless.

Workers not told of high readings of chemicals 

Over the years Hanford contractors in charge of the waste tanks have assured workers that sudden releases of chemical vapors are inevitable, but the releases contain only small amounts of the toxins – “well below the acceptable exposure limits.” But KING 5 obtained vapor measurement data recorded between 2005 and 2009 that show concentrations of dangerous chemicals well above exposure limits.

In that time period, mercury, a toxic metal that can cause brain damage, was:

* Measured at 473% above occupational limits in 2009.
* Measured at 342% above occupational limits in 2006.
* Measured at 223% above occupational limits in 2009.

Ammonia, which can cause lung damage and glaucoma, was:

* Measured at 1,856% above occupational limits in 2005.
* Measured at 1,595% above occupational limits in 2005.
* Measured at 643% above occupational limits in 2006.

And nitrosodimethylamine, a known carcinogen, was:

* Measured at 3,731% above occupational limits in 2005.
* Measured at 4,880% above occupational limits in 2006.
* Measured at 13,866% above occupational limits in 2006.

Mike Geffre, a Hanford worker who retired in 2013 after 26 years at the site, said he never saw numbers like these.

“Oh my God! I was out there in these farms on these dates, every one of these farms on these dates I was out there working,” he said in shock. “I’m just thinking, ‘Who in their right mind had this information and didn’t give it to us?’” Geffre said.

“… [S]omebody looked at this information and made the decision we’re not going to tell them. That guy should go to jail. OK, that guy who made that decision that we’re not going to tell the employees should literally be put on trial as a criminal,” Geffre said.

The government’s response

On Monday afternoon a Department of Energy media specialist sent KING 5 a statement regarding the measurements and the fact that they were not shared with workers:

“The statistics cited by KING in their query to DOE do not represent potential worker exposure levels, rather they represent levels found within tank head space or exhaust stacks – areas that are not accessible to workers.  If work is conducted in proximity to these areas, extensive pre-planning is conducted to reduce the potential for exposure, and the full suite of personal protective equipment is evaluated for worker protection.

“Since 2005, in the more than 59,700 personal and area samples taken – where workers could actually experience exposure, no Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) have been exceeded.  This sampling process is consistent with industry standards applied throughout the United States. Additionally, the tank farm OELs are based on extensive toxicological studies by expert committees from academia and government.”

But a longtime Hanford worker with decades of expertise on air sampling at the site said the measured levels do indeed show the risk to workers.

“The fact that those levels exist in the ‘source’ means that those same chemicals have the absolute potential to be present in a worker’s breathing zone. They (Dept. of Energy) are correct that the levels would be less HOWEVER you cannot assume that those levels measured for that single sampling event represent worst case scenario. Other sampling events could show those same chemicals/gases at even higher levels,” said the specialist, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Don Slaugh, who still works at Hanford despite suffering lung damage on the job, said he does not recall hearing about the threat of chemical vapors when he was working in the tank farms.

His wife, Verna, said it was unfair that workers like her husband were sent out to work without knowledge of possible threats.

“It’s not fair to send somebody out there who doesn’t know,” she said, “they need to have the information in their hands to know how dangerous it is to work in these areas.”

Verna Slaugh added, “They [Hanford officials] need to think about the workers as being human beings and think about the consequences they are causing them – they need to think about people, not money.”

After Don Slaugh became sick from working at Hanford he became an advocate for others. He’s now a safety rep at the site. “I don’t want to see other people go through what I’m going through, but unfortunately, more people are getting sick,” said Slaugh.

What Tri-Party Agreement???

“If everything had gone according to plan, the work would be only about five years away from completion. But Hanford officials are still decades and tens of billions of dollars away from finishing the cleanup of the radioactive mess.”

25th Year of the Tri-Party Agreement.

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – The cleanup of the nation’s largest collection of radioactive waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons was supposed to be nearing an end by now.

Twenty five years ago, a landmark agreement was signed to deal with the millions of gallons of waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington. More than $30 billion has already been spent under the so-called Tri-Party Agreement signed by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington state Department of Ecology.

If everything had gone according to plan, the work would be only about five years away from completion. But Hanford officials are still decades and tens of billions of dollars away from finishing the cleanup of the radioactive mess.

WHAT IS HANFORD?

The sprawling Hanford site was created north of Richland during World War II to make plutonium for atomic bombs. The site is half the size of Rhode Island, and included nine nuclear reactors that produced nuclear weapons material during the Cold War. Left behind is the nation’s largest volume of nuclear defense waste, including 177 giant underground storage tanks that contain the most toxic radioactive brew. The site has more than 8,000 employees.

WHAT IS THE TRI-PARTY AGREEMENT?

Faced with an unprecedented cleanup problem, the federal and state governments signed the Tri-Party Agreement on May 15, 1989. It had three main goals, said John Price, Tri-Party Agreement manager for the state Department of Ecology in Richland: Define the work to be done; schedule that work; smooth relations between the three agencies, so they were not constantly battling in court.

WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG?

Price points to a combination of the scientific complexity of the work and the limits of the federal budget. The cleanup budget is currently about $2 billion per year, which is not enough to meet agreement deadlines, Price said. It needs to be $3 billion to $3.5 billion a year to stay on schedule, Price said. Half of Hanford spending goes to “keeping the lights on,” Price said, with the other half going to actual cleanup work.

HAS ANYTHING BEEN DONE?

The progress of the past 25 years is easy to measure. Hanford has gone from 586 square miles of cleanup work to 107 square miles left as of last November. In addition, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel has been moved away from the Columbia River. There have been 836 separate waste sites remediated, 401 facilities demolished and six of nine plutonium production reactors have been cocooned.

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

Critics say the agreement has outlived its usefulness. “We are constantly frustrated by how easily the Department of Energy slips out of agreements in the Tri-Party Agreement,” said Tom Carpenter, director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge. Between 1989 and 2013, there were 646 amendments to the deal, and more are looming. Most of the changes involved pushing back deadlines because of technical difficulties. Most frustrating are stalled efforts to build a Waste Treatment Plant to handle all the waste from the underground tanks, Carpenter said. Work on the one-of-a-kind plant has stopped because of questions about its design and safety.

DO CRITICS OFFER A SOLUTION?

Carpenter believes the Department of Energy should be removed from running the cleanup and overseeing the private contractors who actually perform the work. “The Department of Energy has too long and deep a track record of failure,” he said. The work could be turned over to the Environmental Protection Agency, or the government could create a new agency to do the job, Carpenter suggested.

HOW MUCH LONGER WILL THE WORK TAKE?

Price predicted that cleaning up Hanford would take 40 to 50 more years, with the most difficult work – emptying 56 million gallons of waste from the underground tanks – still left.

 

Yakama Nation and Hanford Issues

RadCast: When a commission was formed to find a location to set up the Manhattan Project, the area now known as Tri-Cities was far less populated, but nonetheless populated by bands of Native American Tribes; the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce, Walla Walla, and Umatilla among others. The commission declared that this land was perfect to build nuclear bombs since it was unpopulated and deserted. We post this comment in memory and respect for those Native peoples who died in the long eco-cide and genocide fromYakama nuclear destruction by the United States Government.

Yakama Nation Fights for Nuclear Waste Cleanup at Hanford Site

 by Michelle Tolson – May 21, 2014

Chinook salmon have returned in large numbers to the Columbia River, but tribal members worry about radioactive contamination

At 78, Russell Jim is at the age when most people are slowing down. But this elder of the Yakama Nation in Washington State remains full of righteous anger about the way his people have been treated over the last 150 years. “The real history of Native Americans has not been told yet,” says the silver-braided Jim. “When the US government put our people on reservations, they put us on the worst lands where there are few resources.” Especially galling to Jim, who is the project director for Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program for the Yakama Nation, is the government’s mishandling of the nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Site, which lies just 20 miles from the Yakama Reservation.

“We [the tribes] tried to get on the list for compensation,” says Jim, who has suffered from throat cancer. “Personally, I am convinced that much of the illnesses, thyroid problems and cancers are from Hanford.”

Jim also worries about birth defects in the tribe, as three counties around the reservation have been seeing high rates of anencephaly, a rare and fatal birth defect. “We asked two doctors yesterday [May 15]  about how the tribes are affected.  They said they don’t know yet, and we don’t know yet either.  But we do know that radionuclides can damage our and the salmon’s DNA.”

The Hanford Nuclear Site in central Washington State was a centerpiece of the United States’ early nuclear weapons program, the first plutonium production reactor in the world. Between 1944 and 1972, radioactive materials from the reactor were routinely flushed directly into the Columbia River or dumped onto the ground — as much as 1.7 trillion gallons of liquid waste, radionuclides and hazardous chemicals. Though many releases had short half-lives, health experts say they posed health risks due to the high amounts, especially for the tribal people who depended on fish from the river. Most of the reactors were decommissioned in the 1970s, but the site was left with massive amounts of nuclear waste. As measured by volume, the site has two-thirds of the US’ high-level radioactive waste. Today, it is the focus of the largest environmental cleanup effort in the US.

For the Yakama Tribe, the radioactive leaks from the Hanford Site marked just one of a series of injustices. In the 1930’s the federal government began building a series of hydropower projects on the Columbia, including the famous Grand Coulee Dam, which choked off the once prolific salmon migrations. Then the government confiscated the Yakama’s sacred spiritual places and ancient fishing and hunting grounds along the Columbia River to create the nuclear weapons production site. Although tribe members living along the Columbia received compensation for the loss of their homes due to the dams, this did not cover the loss of their livelihoods and fishing rights, including at Hanford. According to the Yakama Treaty of 1855 they are promised access to their “usual and accustomed places” for hunting, gathering, and fishing.

“This is important,” Jim explains, pointing to the map of the territory the Yakama lived on before it was taken by force.  “Because the land we have is not enough to meet the diet we are genetically adapted for.”  That is, a diet that doesn’t include the cheap starches foisted on the tribes, and for which Jim blames the high rates of diabetes and other health problems.

Recently the river corridor near the nuclear reservation, known as “Hanford Reach,” has seen the largest spawning population wild fall Chinook salmon in recent memory. The tribes are guaranteed special access to the salmon, which they make use of. But many people wonder if the fish is OK to eat, given the radioactive materials buried near there.

“I’ve asked: ‘So it safe to go back there?’” Jim says. “They say, ‘We don’t know,’ and they can’t tell us as they are under contract to the DOE [Department of Energy] and bound to confidentiality…. We don’t have enough funding to conduct the needed testing on young salmon, to see how it affects them.”

The high-level radioactive waste at Hanford still has no permanent disposal site. There was an effort, before the Nuclear Waste Policy Act passed in 1982, to turn Hanford into a storage site for nuclear waste from around the country, but the Yakama Nation blocked it.

“Stopping waste storage at Hanford was a very major success for us,” Jim says. “They were going to drill down 3,000 feet under the water table into the basalt formation.  [After the act passed] they started drilling up to 150 feet.  We filed at injunction to stop them.  They tried to say it was already grandfathered in.” The Umatilla and Nez Perce, two other federally recognized tribes, later joined the effort and successfully filed for affected tribe status.

While Washington State and the Yakama Nation want the waste moved, previously promised by the Department of Energy by 1998, long-term nuclear storage options remain elusive. Federal agencies spent countless hours and billions of dollars laying plans for a permanent nuclear waste deposit facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but then President Obama scrapped that option. Temporary storage sites are also in flux.  The Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in western Utah was to host a nuclear waste storage site, but that plan, too, collapsed in late 2012. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility in New Mexico is the only permanent nuclear waste repository in the US today, but it is only designed to store low level waste, such as soil, clothes and tools contaminated with plutonium. Its future hangs in the balance after a brief closure in February due to a radiation leak.

Tom Carpenter of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge says “the current company doing the cleanup is doing a bad job.  They seem to be more interested in the contractor fee and money.”  His organization has worked with whistleblowers to increase public awareness and bring media attention to the many problems. “Hanford has turned into a giant feeding frenzy for contractors,” he says.

According to Carpenter, six of the 177 massive underground tanks at Hanford have been leaking. Carpenter says: “They say don’t have room to store it [the radioactive waste] in the existing tanks. They say the outer tank is still good.  We say they need new tanks. They are just going to let it drift into the soil.”

The contractors say building new tanks will require more money.  “In the 1980’s a tank cost $10 million, but now they claim it is $150 million per tank.  We want to know how it is possible that the cost went up so much.  It cost a lot less in 1980, why is it so much more now?” asks Carpenter.

The waste that was poured into the soil and, later, leaked from containment units, now manifests itself as toxic groundwater plumes flowing toward the Columbia.  These plumes are at varying distances from the Columbia River, but some are as close as 400 yards from the river.

Russell Jim says about 150 “upwellings” of groundwater from the site enter the Columbia River depending on its level, in areas where  juvenile salmon like to gather. In February, divers at Wanapum Dam upstream from Hanford discovered a 65-foot wide crack in the dam.  Water has been drawn down from the reservoir to take stress off it but this inundated the shores of the Reach where the upwellings occur, merging the Columbia River with contaminated Hanford water.

In the meantime, the game of cat and mouse continues at Hanford.  “They seem to be using a ‘hide and hope’ strategy to deal with this,” Carpenter says. “A lot of environmental organizations have stepped away.”

However, the Yakama remain resolute. “We are not able to pick up and move on,” Russell Jim says.  “This is our home — the Columbia River.”