Radioactive Plutonium Detected In Air Near Hanford Nuclear Facility

Just ten days after the emergency at Washington's Hanford nuclear facility in early May, when a tunnel collapse prompted concerns about radioactive waste fallout as we described then in "'Serious Situation' After Tunnel Collapse At WA Nuclear Facility; Evacuation Ordered, No-Fly Zone In Place", we reported that the U.S. Department of Energy was scrambling to deal with a second emergency, when signs emerged that a massive underground double shell nuclear waste holding tank may also be leaking. As reported then, the tank in question - AZ 101 - was put into service in 1976, with a life expectancy of 20 years. Through 2017, it has been holding hot, boiling radioactive and chemically contaminated waste for 41 years.

As a reminder, prior to this second leak, on May 9 workers found a 20 by 20 foot cave in of a tunnel used to store highly radioactive and chemically contaminated equipment from the Cold War-era. Worse still, as The Wall Street Journal reported at the time, a worker’s clothing was exposed to radioactive contamination at the site, in what Gov. Jay Inslee called an “alarming incident” that should prompt federal officials to expedite their cleanup of the decommissioned facility. Detection equipment was then used to check for contamination that might have become airborne and adhered to the workers.

The radioactive material was found in three spots: on a worker's shoe, his shirt, and his pants in the knee area. According to workers in the field, the contaminated items were removed, bagged and appropriately disposed of.

Following these incidents, all newsflow involving Hanford and its erratic leaks of radioactive material faded away, even as concerns grew that leaks at the radioactive facility were not being addressed.

In retrospect, the concerns were justified because according to KATU2, on Tuesday health officials confirmed low plutonium levels in the air near the Hanford nuclear reservation.

State of Washington's Department of Health's (DOH) workers analyzed samples taken June 8, 2017 and detected levels of contamination near the Rattlesnake Barricade, according to Hanford officials.

Health officials collected the samples following an airborne release of radioactive particles during demolition of the highly contaminated facility. As reported at the time, on June 8, in yet another incident at Hanford, employees in the Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP) were told to take cover inside the facility as a precaution after an air monitor alarmed. The monitor went off in a demolition area as crews were demolishing part of the PFP. About 350 Hanford workers took cover according to Hanford news.

While the DOH has reported that "contamination levels were very low and do not pose a health risk", the general public - still on edge from the May and June incidents - has little if any confidence left in the official narrative involving the threats posed by Hanford.

The Department of Energy and the DOH are investigating these findings. So far, they have not determined the cause.