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Cleanup schedule compromises safety at nuke site, critics charge

February 27, 2004
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The State of Washington is investigating charges that the Department of Energy and its contractors currently engaged in cleaning up the 586-square-mile Hanford nuclear waste complex are ignoring some of the risks associated with the cleanup, according to The New York Times.

The state attorney general's office is studying allegations arising from a report by the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that represents some Hanford workers in legal actions. According to the report, there were 45 incidents from 2002 through the middle of last year in which 67 workers required medical attention because they were exposed to toxic vapors from underground tanks.

DOE officials and Hanford cleanup contractors defend their worker protection practices, but some doctors, experts and lawmakers charge that an accelerated cleanup schedule has put worker safety and health at risk.

More than 11,000 workers are involved in the cleanup, which costs $2 billion a year, according to the article.

A spokesman for the Energy Department told the Times that the number of cases involving loss of work because of injury has declined every year since 1998.

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.

A health physics technician had "unsuccessfully tried to stop the work," according to the report. 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.

Some newly sickened workers have been exposed to metal tools made of beryllium alloys. Some of these workers claimed 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, could trigger work transferals to prevent further exposure. Plus, their chances for compensation depend on the disease being work-related.

According to the article, some members of Congress have urged DOE to exert more authority over the site contractors. And the oversight panel set up by Congress opposes a plan by the Energy Department that would allow Hanford contractors and other sites to draw up their own plans for meeting safety rules.

Representative John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), 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."

"We will not put at any risk any of our workers for the benefit of a faster cleanup," Joseph Davis a spokesman for the Energy Department, told the Times. "We can terminate (contractors) any time if we think they're doing something really stupid."

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