A brief look into the most recent 324 contamination at Hanford

324_airlockWhile there has been no public announcement by the Department of Energy, a contamination event took place last month in a building at the Hanford site, located just 3,000 feet away from the Columbia River and a mile and a half away from the city of Richland. The initial plan for the project was to clean extremely radioactive soil underneath a structure known as 324 Building. During preparations for cleanup in early March, workers unexpectedly detected Strontium-90, a highly radioactive isotope, in the building itself. In the following weeks, workers continued to find Strontium-90 in other parts of the building, indicating a spread of contamination. However, work continued until contamination found on a worker’s clothing finally brought the project to a halt in early April.

This event is made more egregious by the fact that an independent safety board reviewed cleanup plans for 324 Building in 2018. The investigators found that the Hanford contractor in charge of the cleanup underestimated the potential worker and public exposure risk in cleaning up this site. Whereas the contractor estimated a maximum dosage threat to the public of 1.1 rem (equivalent to about 100 chest x-rays) and workers at 3.8 rems, the safety board calculated the maximum exposure as high as 916 rem to the public (the equivalent of 90,000 chest x-rays) and 3,165 rem to the workers. This same contractor mishandled the Plutonium Finish Plant, which ultimately led to at least 41 workers inhaling plutonium particles in 2017-8.

While the 324 Building contamination event did not result in any worker or public injury, its ramifications are huge. This is not the first time that radioactive threats have been underestimated by Hanford contractors, showing that follow up measures have not been taken to prevent such miscalculations in the future. The lack of transparency is troubling, especially considering that this was an allegedly “minor” contamination event. Moving forward, how can we trust the Department of Energy and Hanford contractors to notify us about future events that pose a greater threat to the public?

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