Thursday, August 05, 2004

Radiation Exposures and Close Calls at Hanford

Health and safety conditions at the Hanford nuclear reservation have been receiving quite a bit of attention lately -- most of it bad. The Hanford workers are empying underground tanks containing 53 million gallons of radioactive and dangerous chemical waste. They're turning the radioactive waste left from the past production of plutonium into a more stable glass form for disposal.

Last month, a worker died in a fall and about the same time, NIOSH issued a Health Hazard Evaluation stating that there is
a potential for significant occupational exposures and health effects from vapors released from the hazardous waste-storage tanks," and that "vapor constituents may be present at sufficiently high concentrations to pose a health risk to workers.

A couple of days ago, the Tri-City Herald reported that
Two near-miss accidents at the vitrification plant under construction at Hanford led the Department of Energy to call for improvements at the end of June.
While the accident rate at Hanford is lower than the national average, a number of serious close calls are causing concern:
On June 22, a 100-pound piece of steel supposed to be embedded in concrete fell 40 to 45 feet, according to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report released Friday. It landed 8 feet from a worker.

Five days earlier, pieces of rebar fell when a "curtain" of crosshatched rebar was being lifted into the air by crane.

Other problems in late June included a worker who lost the end of a finger when his glove caught in a drill press, a worker who fell when a ladder slid out from under him and a worker who fell inside a wall of rebar.

The year had started with some other problems described in another safety board report. A 1,112-pound steel beam fell about 20 feet after the choker holding it contacted a handrail. The area had been cleared of people before work started, according to Bechtel National.

Also that month a stainless steel plate was dropped 8 feet and a section of telescoping brace was dropped 12 feet, according to the safety board.
Then yesterday, the Seattle Times reported that a Hanford employee suffered a serious radiation exposure after handling a radioactive piece of equipment without lead-lined gloves for protection.
A senior vice president at CH2M Hill, the contractor in charge of the $2 billion-a-year cleanup at the sprawling nuclear-weapons complex, yesterday blamed faulty planning for putting the worker in a dangerous situation while he was helping decommission a vault that once held radioactive waste. Dale Allen also said a supervisor should have stopped the work as soon as dangerous radiation levels were detected, but said the company had no plans to discipline him.

"We didn't expect to see such a high level," Allen said. "We didn't require leaded gloves, and we believe that to be a mistake."


Tom Carpenter, of the Hanford watchdog group Government Accountability Project, said the incident reflects a tendency to put speed ahead of safety.

"It seems like the people in charge of safety are just being ignored and there's apparently no consequence for supervisors who do so."