The Washington Post
December 19, 1989

40s Plutonium Emissions Concealed

Government Slow to Correct Problem With Carcinogen, Data Shows

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer

A factory producing plutonium for nuclear weapons repeatedly emitted airborne particles of the cancer-causing substance in the vicinity of Hanford, Wash., during the l late 1940s and early 1950s, but decided not to warn workers and nearby residents because "nothing was to be gained," according to government documents cited in a Senate staff study yesterday.

The documents indicate that billions of radioactive particles were emitted each month by the Hanford plant, but that the government was slow to correct the problem and did not promptly initiate recommended -health studies.

The documents are the latest in a series of revelations about poor safety practices at the 17 facilities involved in the production of nuclear weapons, which experts say have led to widespread environmental problems that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up.

Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which released the study of the papers, said it shows that "the U.S. nuclear weapons program was exposing large numbers of workers to potentially dangerous health risks but did nothing to warn them and swept the problem under the carpet."

The staff study was based on interviews with former Hanford workers and documents released several years ago to the public one by one that had not previously been drawn together.

Some of the largest emissions between 1952 and 1954 reached Spokane, 115 miles northeast of Hanford, the documents indicated. The emissions, which included other radioactive substances besides plutonium, were in addition to the deliberate release of radioactive iodine and xenon into the air at Hanford in 1949 as part of an experiment conducted for unknown reasons under apparent instructions from the U.S. Air Force.

A report by Washington State health researchers cited an Atomic Energy Commission judgment at the time that "nothing was to be gained by informing the public about the releases," the study said.

The Senate study asserts that public exposure was likely far above current environmental and occupational standards, causing some workers to receive the equivalent of a lifetime maximum radiation dose from plutonium in a single year.

A report by a government contractor in the mid-1970s found excess cancer deaths among Hanford workers, but it was later repudiated by the government and has been a topic of enormous scientific controversy.

James Ruttenber, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said researchers are still debating the magnitude and consequences of these emissions.

But Ruttenber said he agreed with the committee that "there was no major effort-to notify people at all," including thousands of construction workers and those assigned to sporadic decontamination efforts.

One internal report by a Hanford official six years after the emissions were detected warned that their continuation posed a "very serious health problem .. . not only from the standpoint of real injury but because of the extreme difficulty of defense in cases of litigation."

Department of Energy spokeswoman Christina Sankey said Secretary James D. Watkins "is currently reviewing Senator Glenn's l report," which "does not contain ' recent data and does not bring forward new facts." She said, however, that Watkins "feels that these are very important issues, and for that reason he has been actively engaged in a series of initiatives since his arrival at DOE to change the department's operating culture."

Glenn said he applauded recent government efforts to assess then: health effects of radioactive emissions at Hanford and other weapons facilities, but that more of these reports must be made available to the public.

A 1948 recommendation by officials at another weapons facility, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that retiring workers be informed of excessive radiation exposure was rejected by the AEC's Advisory Committee for Biology and Medicine, the responsible health watchdog at that time, the documents indicate. - The advisory group instead decided that "a terminating employee should be advised. . . as to the care that the |government] utilizes in protecting each employee."

Officials at the Department of Energy, which now manages the nuclear weapons complex, knew of the forthcoming committee study when they decided last week to release details of Hanford plutonium production from- 1944 to 1960.

Senator John Glenn. . . says workers were unwarned

That release, they said, was aimed at bolstering public confidence in forthcoming epidemiological studies d workers and nearby residents.

In a related development, the department's Advisory Committee on nuclear Facility Safety reported to Watkins yesterday that the response to a May release of the radioactive gas tritium at the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Tex., had been: marked by "confusion, misread instruments and uncertain actions."

That tritium release was well publicized at the time. The safety panel, headed by John F. Ahearne, said radiation specialists and technicians responded adequately, but other personnel showed faulty training and had "no plan to handle what surely must be an anticipated accident."

Pantex spokesman Tom Walton said some of the problems cited have already been addressed and "those that can't be corrected immediately will be studied."

Staff writer Thomas W. Lippman contributed to this report