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Hanford’s nuclear waste tank farm contractor can do more to protect workers from brief exposures to high concentrations of chemicals, a new study said.

“The current program is not designed to detect and is incapable of detecting and quantifying this type of transient exposure event,” said the Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report.

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Since this spring 54 workers have received medical evaluations for possible exposure to chemical vapors released from Hanford waste and all returned to work.

The study team made 40 recommendations for improvements to the Hanford contractor’s program to monitor for vapors that are difficult to measure and document and protect workers. That includes setting exposure limits for brief exposures, as well as for eight-hour shifts.

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The tanks hold 56 million gallons of waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Current efforts at the tank farms estimate chemical exposures from vapors released over eight-hour periods, according to the $1.6 million report commissioned by tank farm contractor Washington River Protection Solutions and independently led by the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina. The Department of Energy (DoE) paid for the study.

Hanford’s program addresses chemical exposures similar to industry programs that monitor for chronic exposure with an emphasis on protecting against long-term health effects. The catch is, however, the symptoms workers reported appear are the result of concentrated chemical exposures over just seconds or minutes, the report said.

“Management must acknowledge the health risk associated with episodic releases of tank vapors,” the report said.

The chemical vapor protection program must be elevated to the same level as work to protect workers from radiological hazards and programs to prevent explosions and unplanned nuclear reactions within the tanks, it said.

Washington River Protection Solutions has begun addressing recommendations, based on preliminary information in an early draft of the report.

“We want this fixed and fixed once and for all,” said Dave Olson, Washington River Protection Solutions president. Work will continue in the tank farms for decades and vapors need to be a known hazard that ends up effectively measured and controlled, he said.

The report recommended real-time detection equipment with alarms for individual workers and “escape” respiratory equipment that workers could carry with them to quickly put on when chemicals end up detected.

It also discussed the possibility of modifying optical gas imaging cameras used in the petroleum industry to detect clouds of vapors before workers suffer exposure and to sound an alarm.

The key symptoms reported by workers exposed to chemical vapors this year are upper respiratory irritation, such as sore throats, but workers fear chemical exposure could lead to serious long-term health problems. In one incident this year, a worker ended up treated for chemical pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs caused by chemical exposure.

Click here to view the report.

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