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Inspectors Fault Beryllium Safety at Hanford Nuclear Reservation

A program to protect workers from beryllium while cleaning up the Hanford nuclear site in Washington may have exposed them to avoidable risk, according to a new report by the Department of Energy.The report cites "management weaknesses."

No one said cleaning up a Cold War-era bomb factory was without its hazards. But weaknesses in a program to protect workers from a toxic metal may have exposed them to avoidable risk, according to a newly released report by the Department of Energy.

These findings confirm prior reporting done by ProPublica, which pointed out lapses or gaps in beryllium testing at the site and beryllium training for workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state. At Hanford and at other nuclear cleanup sites around the country, thousands of additional workers have been hired, thanks to billions in federal stimulus funds.

The report cited "management weaknesses," namely a perception among some managers that recently diagnosed cases of disease are a result of past exposures. It also said that the sites of potential beryllium contamination are not always identified.

From the DOE report, released yesterday (read it in full in our document viewer):

[T]here continue to be newly-diagnosed cases of beryllium sensitization and CBD among current and former Hanford workers. New cases of sensitization and CBD are not necessarily the result of deficiencies in the current program, because a newly-discovered case could be the result of a past exposure.

Nevertheless, because of the weaknesses in the recent and current implementation of [Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program] controls (e.g., inadequate facility characterizations known areas of contamination that are not well controlled) and the ongoing discovery of new sources of beryllium, the possibility that new cases are resulting from recent exposures cannot be ruled out.

Beryllium was used for decades in the production process for nuclear weapons, and its legacy of contamination still lingers in the dust at many old plutonium processing sites.

The report pointed out that air sampling shows beryllium levels are low, and the use of protective equipment has helped workers limit exposure. But as we've reported, even breathing minuscule amounts of beryllium dustcan trigger chronic beryllium disease in some people with sensitivities to the metal, and when it does, the consequences can be deadly.

The report also faulted the site's medical contractor for not doing a required analysis of cases of beryllium sensitivity or chronic beryllium disease discovered in the past two years. Such analysis could have helped determine whether additional protective action was needed to ensure the health and safety of workers.

According to The Associated Press, more than 160 workers have been diagnosed with sensitivity to beryllium or with the disabling and potentially fatal disease, which gradually robs victims of lung capacity.  

Tom Peterson is one former Hanford worker who has the disease. He called the Department of Energy's report "very positive," but said that implementing the inspectors' recommendations for fixing the program will be "the hardest job of all."

"It's probably one of the best reports that I have seen," Peterson said. "Man, I just hope it works. That's the bottom line. We owe it to the workers to take care of them so they don't have to worry about being exposed, and the ones that are already exposed, we have to take care of them."

For more about the workers at Hanford, check out this slideshow and read some of our previous reporting.

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