A work stoppage continued Tuesday by Hanford Nuclear Reservation workers who say radioactive wastes left from nuclear weapons production are making them sick.
Union president Dave Molnaa, who ordered the work stoppage, said it will continue until all employees are provided with bottled air when working around all of the underground nuclear waste storage tanks on the Hanford site.
Workers have contended for years that chemical vapors escaping from the tanks are making them sick.
The steel tanks, some dating back to World War II, contain wastes left over from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
The Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, a coalition of 15 unions that represent workers on the site near Richland, Washington, issued the “stop work” order Monday morning when some employees went to work at the tank farms without supplied air respirators.
Molnaa, president of the council, said he would not lift the stop-work order until air respirators supplied by the nuclear reservation were mandatory for all work in Hanford tank farms.
About 700 people work each shift at the tank farms, where waste ends up stored until it can eventually convert into a stable glasslike substance by a yet-to-be finished plant for permanent disposal. The work stoppage covers 2,000 of the more than 8,000 workers on the Hanford site, Molnaa said.
The 177 underground tanks store 56 million gallons of the most toxic wastes left over from the production of plutonium, including for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.
The government must clean up the wastes, a process expected to take decades and cost billions of dollars.
Under the union order, work can continue if workers are using air respirators, Molnaa said.
Washington River Protection Solutions, the private contractor that operates the tank farms for the U.S. Department of Energy, requires that air respirators be worn for much of the work near older single-walled tanks, most of which passively vent into the atmosphere. But the company said last week there was no data to support using air respirators for work in the newer double-walled tanks, which do not vent in the same way.
However, workers have reported smelling suspicious odors or feeling ill when working around the newer double-walled tanks. Workers have reported headaches or bloody noses after exposure to the vapors, Molnaa said.
Both the union council and the contractor have to reach agreement before a stop-work order can end up lifted, a process that could take several days.
In recent months, more than 50 workers have had medical checks after smelling suspicious odors, experiencing respiratory symptoms or being nearby when vapors were suspected. They were working in double-shell and single-shell tank farms and some were outside the farms.
All were cleared to return to work, according to Washington River Protection Solutions. But workers remain concerned chemical exposure could lead to serious lung or nervous system illnesses.