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Nuclear-Site Workers Reach Settlement; Government Buy-In Needed

Underground tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Site hold more than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste. (Jeff Keyzer/Flickr)
Underground tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Site hold more than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste. (Jeff Keyzer/Flickr)
September 21, 2018

SEATTLE – Workers at the country's most contaminated nuclear site in southeast Washington scored a win for safety in court this week. But one watchdog group says the federal government now has to follow through to protect Hanford Nuclear Site workers.

Washington state, the Steam and United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 598, and oversight group Hanford Challenge reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Energy on a 2015 case over exposure to hazardous vapors that made workers sick.

But Hanford Challenge Executive Director Tom Carpenter says this isn't the kind of settlement where papers are signed and everyone walks away.

"More along the lines of, 'Here are the things you need to do,'” Carpenter explains. “It's almost like parole, right, where you've got to keep out of trouble – but in this case, it's satisfy a number of conditions all designed to advance protection for the Hanford workers, as they're able to with new technologies."

More than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste are stored in tanks under the Hanford site. Carpenter says one key provision in the settlement requires the federal government to install technology that can detect and destroy toxic vapors in those tanks.

Currently, workers are required to wear respirators. The Department of Energy says this settlement acknowledges its extensive actions to protect workers.

Hanford Challenge has worked with employees who have become sick from vapors. The symptoms sometimes are mild, such as headaches or nosebleeds, but Carpenter cites more severe cases as well, that resulted in brain and lung damage.

Given these serious effects, he says he's pleased with the settlement agreement.

"It's got a lot of features and a lot of transparency in there that wasn't there before,” says Carpenter. “A lot of requirements for the site to start doing things that they before weren't required to do, and now they are. So, this was a fabulous agreement. This is a huge victory for the workers – and the government has to honor the agreement for it to work."

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson also praised the settlement, calling it a historic win for workers.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA