A new report looks at missteps at a Hanford demolition project where radioactive contamination spread 10 miles from the work site.
An air-monitoring system in the fall failed to pick up the spread of radioactive contamination from a Hanford demolition site, giving management false assurance that controls were effective, according to a new draft report that details missteps in a troubled cleanup project at a plutonium-finishing plant.
State monitoring has found that plutonium and americium particles traveled as far as 10 miles from the demolition site, near Richland. Vehicles, office buildings and workers have been tested for traces of radioactive contamination.
All of this has shaken employee and public confidence in the massive Hanford cleanup, where plutonium was produced for the bomb dropped at Nagasaki and later for Cold War weapons.
The demolition targeted a building where plutonium was recycled from scrap at the finishing plant, which operated from 1949 to 1989. The work was done by CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company, and the review of what went wrong was done by CH2M/Jacobs Engineering with input from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Managers at the Hanford cleanup were in the challenging position of maintaining safety while trying to make progress toward project milestones and “contractual commitment dates,” according to the report released Thursday.
Air monitoring didn’t pick up problems before work was halted in mid-December and “influenced the decision to increase the rate of demolition,” according to the report.
And there were other signs of trouble.
The report notes that some lapel monitors worn by workers tested positive for contamination.
“Considering these sample results as an indicator may have resulted in a different conclusion and outcome,” the report states.
Individual contamination instances were accepted as routine, according to the report, and the “normalization of deviance” resulted in assuming risk that was not “fully analyzed, documented or controlled.”
Risk escalated as walls of the finishing plant were knocked down and the rubble stored in piles.
To control help the spread of radioactive contamination, the rubble can be put in containers, covered in soil or coated with fixatives.
But the report found a problem with the fixatives. They were diluted — by 50 percent — so they could be sprayed on the higher reaches of the building and cover the exposed sites. That was done without a “rigorous technical evaluation” and was not recommended by the manufacturer, according to the report.
So the fixatives may not have been as effective amid the harsh conditions, including strong winds that kicked up in December.
Other issues noted in the report included poor communication between employees and management during the demolition and after the contamination spread.
Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group, said the report indicates that schedule pressures and concerns about costs led to poor decisions, to the detriment of workers.
Washington State Department of Health officials also have been concerned as air monitoring found traces of plutonium and americium contamination spread to other Hanford areas. The health department assumed it was from the demolition project.
The U.S. Energy Department tests on worker and contractor vehicles found contamination on more than 35 of them.
The contamination spread also prompted 280 workers to request bioassays to determine if they could have ingested or inhaled particles. So far, 11 workers have tested positive for small doses, while another 252 tested negative, according to an Energy Department update.
The Energy Department reports the demolition site is currently stable, with no new safety issues.