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US: Workers Fear Toxins In Faster Nuclear Cleanup

by Sarah Kershaw and Matthew WaldNew York Times
February 20th, 2004

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 operation.

"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 charges.

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 underground tanks.

"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' radiation exposure.

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 notify employees.

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 rules.

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 concern."

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."

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