Toxic Vapors and the 50 Million Gallons of Nuclear Waste

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A federal court hearing set for October 2016 could reshape safety rules at the federal government’s Hanford nuclear-weapons-production complex in south central Washington state, where critics contend noxious vapors from underground tanks have harmed workers.At the hearing in Spokane, Wash., Judge Thomas O. Rice plans to consider motions filed by the Washington attorney general and private parties for a preliminary injunction requiring that certain safety measures be taken, including greater use of portable breathing apparatuses.

The parties say workers were exposed to vapors from the underground tanks, which hold more than 50 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste. The waste was created when Hanford, which closed in the late 1980s, produced plutonium for the atomic-weapons program.

The injunction requests are part of litigation filed last year over the vapor issue against the Energy Department and one of its major Hanford contractors by the state, as well as an environmental and workers-advocacy group and a local labor union.

Earlier in 2016 “over 50 Hanford tank farm workers were sickened by toxic vapors spewed into the air,” said a court filing by the attorney general’s office. Over the years, hundreds or more workers have suffered problems ranging from nosebleeds and headaches to long-term lung and brain damage, the plaintiffs contend….

The Energy Department, which oversees the cleanup, in a court filing called the injunction motions “an unwarranted intrusion into DOE’s ongoing cleanup operations, including the world-class worker-safety and industrial-hygiene measures” the agency has put in place….Granting the preliminary injunction could also delay by up to five years efforts to comply with a separate court-mandated schedule for emptying tanks as part of a long-term plan to treat and dispose of the waste, the filing said. Among other things, workers using supplied-air packs “generally move more slowly,” it added.

Excerpts from At Hanford Nuclear Site, Hearing on Tap After Workers Complain of Noxious Vapors, WSJ, Oct. 1, 2016

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