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Explosion at US nuclear waste site covered up, according to union

06 May 2014

On May 2, workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state said that a recent blast on the site two weeks ago had been covered up. A Hanford union representative told NBC’s Right Now programme there was an explosion at the facility as workers were cutting a pipe as part of the demolition of the facility’s Plutonium Finishing Plant.

The anonymous representative said workers were concerned that the facility management was not putting worker safety first, playing down the explosion to protect themselves from fines and work delays.

NBC said workers described the explosion as a spark followed by flames that shot out of the pipe. The union representative said that if the pipe had broken, workers would have inhaled plutonium particles, with possibly fatal results.

PFP managing contractor CH2M Hill provided the following statement to NBC Right Now:  "CH2M HILL’s goal across the Hanford Site is safe and compliant work. We are investigating what occurred on Thursday, April 17. While cutting a pipe, employees reported hearing a loud bang and seeing a small, orange-reddish flame emit from the end of the pipe. Employees responded safely and appropriately after the event occurred.

“The pipe being cut was sealed within a containment enclosure at the time.  Employees did not observe any pressurization of the bag and no sign of damage.

“No employees were hurt, and post job surveys did not detect any spread of contamination. We are in the process of a thorough examination of the pipe to determine what led up to this incident. Employees at the Plutonium Finishing Plant have stopped using mechanical cutting methods until a cause is determined and we can prevent future recurrence."

The US Department of Energy told NBC: "The Department of Energy is overseeing the contractor's response and will continue to evaluate their investigation into the cause of the event and corrective actions."

This incident follows reports of continuing chemical fume leaks from storage silos on the Hanford site.

The Tri-City Herald reported that Hanford contractor Washington River Protection Solutions has asked the Savannah River National Laboratory to provide analysis and recommendations following the leaks, which resulted in 17 workers receiving medical attention following apparent exposure to chemical vapours.

Hanford's 177 underground tanks hold 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste left over from nuclear weapons production from World War II through the Cold War. So far, the clean up has cost some $40 billion, and officials estimate it will cost $115 billion more.

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