Plutonium exposure prompts investigation into inactive nuclear arms plant

A worker at a shuttered nuclear weapons plant in Washington state was contaminated with plutonium earlier this month, triggering a federal investigation into the transportation of potentially contaminated ventilation devices through three states, the Times has learned.

The incident occurred during cleanup operations at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, a highly contaminated facility that has been inactive for 25 years at the Hanford Site in central Washington, along the Columbia River.

Department of Energy officials say they do not believe any individuals, apart from the single contaminated worker, were exposed to plutonium, though it is continuing its investigation into the incident.

“We are looking into this entire event,” said Erik Olds, chief of staff at the Hanford cleanup operation.

The worker, an employee of CH2M Hill, was exposed when he removed his hazmat suit, but a subsequent investigation found contamination on the ventilation unit's hose.

The suspect ventilation devices had been previously transported to a fire department station, a personal residence and two factories in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, triggering state and federal response teams to inspect the plants and monitor individuals. Energy Department officials found that two of the three units transported to a salesman's home had minor contamination, but it fell below federal safety standards, Olds said.

But Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, said Energy officials were trying to minimize the seriousness of the incident.

“They are trying to quibble about the amount of plutonium, but no amount should have ever left the facility,” he said.

Meanwhile, high-risk cleanup work at the plutonium finishing plant, which is slated for demolition next year, has been suspended.

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The inspections were conducted with health officials from Washington, Ohio and Pittsburgh.

“The Ohio Department of Health received notification from the U.S. Department of Energy that there was a possibility that some contaminated personal protective equipment parts had been shipped to a manufacturer in the Cincinnati area,” said Melanie Amato, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health. “A State Health Department team was sent to the location and conducted extensive testing but all results were negative. Subsequently, a U.S. Department of Energy team arrived at the location and tested with the same results.”

Any plutonium exposure or release is considered a serious breach of safety and security rules in the Energy Department. The incident is part of a series of mishaps that include a major radiological accident at a nuclear dump in New Mexico last year that resulted in a two-year shutdown. The accident caused low-level radioactive exposure to 21 workers after the contaminated exhaust from the underground dump was blown to the surface.

The plutonium finishing plant is among the most badly contaminated buildings in the nation. It was the site of a notorious accident during the Cold War when a worker was exposed to a massive dose of radiation after an explosion and became known as the “Atomic Man.” He was so radioactive that his family could not approach him for weeks. The room where the accident had occurred remained sealed for decades until this year when workers entered it for the first time.

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The ventilation units that caused the latest exposure are about the size of a shoe box and worn on a belt inside the isolation suit, so it is unclear why the exhaust hose had any contamination. They provide cooling air to the workers, while other devices filter breathing air.

The worker exposed to the plutonium had particles on his elbow, but apparently did not inhale the material. Inhalation of plutonium is among the most serious radiological exposures, because the substance can become embedded in lung tissue and deliver a long-term dose of radiation.

The Hanford site operated a series of reactors that produced plutonium, which was then chemically refined and packaged at the finishing plant, before being transported for fabrication into weapons parts in Colorado or New Mexico.

ralph.vartebedian@latimes.com

Twitter: @RVartabedian

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 19, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Plutonium exposure prompts probe into nuclear arms plant" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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