Report urges better beryllium protection at Hanford

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerJune 3, 2010 

Hanford needs to do more to prevent chronic beryllium disease in its workers, moving more quickly and aggressively to implement a new protection program, according to the report on a three-month investigation released Wednesday.

An independent inspection by the Department of Energy Office of Health, Safety and Security found that the nuclear reservation's new Hanford-wide Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program was a step in the right direction. But there have not been clear plans for a timely implementation of the site-wide plan, the investigation concluded.

It found that many of the key shortcomings in protecting Hanford workers had been identified earlier -- including in a 2002 Hanford Joint Council report -- but issues had not been addressed.

"We will take every opportunity for improvement. We will make it the best in class," pledged Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management. Then lessons learned at Hanford will be applied across the nationwide DOE environmental cleanup complex, she said.

She requested the investigation this spring after the Hanford Advisory Board raised concerns for the second time within 12 months, and was in Richland on Wednesday when the investigation results were released at a meeting attended by about 60 people. They included members of the advisory board, the Hanford Beryllium Awareness Group and the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, all of whom have called for better protection of workers.

"It's about time," said HAMTC President Dave Molnaa, adding that as encouraged as he is by the investigation report, it comes too late for some workers.

About 36 Hanford workers are believed to have been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease during their careers at Hanford, up from just two a decade ago. About another 125 workers are believed to have tested positive for sensitization to beryllium after a past exposure to it.

The metal was machined at Hanford to fabricate fuel for reactors that produced plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program. It also was used in nonsparking tools that may have been modified, dispersing particles of the metal.

Workers with a genetic susceptibility may develop chronic beryllium disease, an incurable and often debilitating lung disease, if they breath in fine particles of the metal.

Hanford officials believed they had addressed shortcomings in the site's beryllium protection program with the new site-wide program, which replaces individual programs by each environmental cleanup-contractor.

"I was wrong," said Dave Brockman, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office. "We needed to pay more attention to implementation."

He learned from the investigation that some of Hanford's good practices had been dropped through the years, he said.

The investigation found that AdvanceMed Hanford, the Hanford occupational medical provider, had not performed an analysis of newly diagnosed cases in Hanford workers for two years. The analyses of medical, job and exposure data for employees is required by DOE rules to help identify workers at risk for exposure to beryllium, better understand beryllium health risks and identify actions to improve the beryllium protection program.

Contributing to weaknesses in the program was a perception among some key people at Hanford that recently diagnosed cases of sensitization or disease were a reflection of exposure from years ago or exposure at other DOE sites before workers came to Hanford, the investigation found.

While that's possible, Hanford officials cannot conclude that workers are no longer being exposed, particularly since new beryllium contamination continues to be discovered at Hanford, the investigation report said.

Hanford facilities and equipment need to be thoroughly assessed for beryllium contamination, the report said. Various beryllium baseline inventory, assessment and characterization activities have been carried out for years "but these past efforts were limited and incomplete," the report said.

Some areas known or suspected of beryllium contamination were not posted as contaminated, said Tom Staker of DOE Health, Safety and Security, the lead investigator. Several lists had been compiled of contaminated buildings, but none were complete, he said. In addition many sources of information for employees were out of date, he said.

There also was concern by those attending the meeting that about 500 workers have dropped out of a program to test for beryllium sensitivity after DOE began notifying their managers.

Workers who test positive for beryllium sensitivity are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease and further exposure to beryllium may increase the risk. To protect their health they can only be assigned to work in areas without possible beryllium contamination.

That puts them at risk of losing their jobs through no fault of their own, Molnaa said.

Investigators credited DOE for starting to make improvements to the beryllium protection program as the inspection was in progress and it became apparent the program needed to be strengthened.

DOE Hanford officials issued new orders to Hanford contractors in April, and in May Brockman met with hundreds of workers to discuss beryllium protection.

More DOE staff will be assigned to the beryllium protection program, including a project manager, an industrial hygienist and a worker advocate. Triay plans to send an employee to Hanford from DOE headquarters to improve communication between Hanford and Washington, D.C., on beryllium protection.

"You have our commitment," she said. "We know it is important to implement corrective action."

The report is excellent, said Tom Peterson, who was diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease in 2003 and required supplied oxygen to attend the meeting.

"But it's only as good as its implementation," he said. "I'm still a little leery."

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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