The Department of Energy has checked for radiation contamination in three states after potentially contaminated equipment left the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Contamination was found at Hanford this past week in cooling systems used within protective suits worn by workers at parts of the Plutonium Finishing Plant that have high levels of airborne radioactive contaminants.
This week, Hanford officials discovered that another 11 of the cooling systems had been sent outside of Hanford for mechanical work in October. They were tracked to Kennewick, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, DOE said.
Two of the systems that left the site were discovered to have radioactive contamination at such low levels that they were not considered a health concern, DOE said. Nine others shipped off site had no contamination.
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Of the cooling systems still at Hanford, around 20 were found to be contaminated.
DOE has had issues with the spread of radioactive contamination since summer, as workers tackle high-hazard decontamination work at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant in preparation for its demolition.
Doug Shoop, a DOE deputy site manager at Hanford, has called the plant DOE’s most hazardous facility to be demolished.
Workers at the plant use protective suits with supplied air breathing systems that are new to Hanford. The puffy suits are filled with air to create higher pressure within the suit than outside it, protecting workers from airborne contamination. The air is cooled for worker comfort, but that is not the air they breathe.
Puffy protective suits are filled with air to create higher pressure within the suit than outside the suit to help protect workers from airborne contamination. The air is cooled for worker comfort.
On Dec. 10, radioactive contamination was found on the elbow of a worker after the suit had been removed. It was one of several incidents at the Plutonium Finishing Plant during the past six months, including incidents of skin contamination.
As the worker’s equipment was examined, contamination was found on the outside of the suit’s cooling system, called a vortex cooler. More contamination was found inside the cooler when it was taken apart.
The units are worn within the air-filled suits and are about the size of a shoebox.
CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation then decided to inspect all the vortex coolers used for the air-filled suits. When not in use, respirator equipment is stored by the Hanford Fire Department, which services and repairs it.
An initial check found that four of the units held by the fire department were contaminated, and all were shipped back to the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The contamination was stuck on the units and unlikely to be released into the air, but as a precaution the fire department facility and its workers were checked for any contamination. None was found.
DOE said about 20 contaminated coolers were found after all the coolers now at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were checked.
Monday, as Hanford officials critiqued the incident they learned that 11 of the systems had been given to a Mine Safety Appliances salesman in the fall to troubleshoot a mechanical problem. Because the units had left Hanford, the Washington Department of Health was called in, and it investigated.
The salesman, who works out of Kennewick, still had three of the coolers in the trunk of his car. One cooler was clean and two had fixed contamination.
The contamination was not “smearable,” said Earl Fordham, a deputy director for radiation protection for the Department of Health. It was at levels that fall below certain state requirements for controls.
At that level for fixed contaminants there is not a public health concern, Fordham said.
The salesman’s car, Kennewick house and a storage unit he used were surveyed for contamination and none was found, DOE said.
The salesman had sent eight coolers to a manufacturing plant in Cincinnati for a look at mechanical issues. Then they had been shipped to a Mine Safety Appliances office in Pittsburgh.
Health officials in those states were notified, and Hanford officials called in the DOE Radiological Assistance Program to help with investigations at the two sites.
Late Wednesday, a survey of the facility in Ohio was completed with no contamination found, DOE said. Thursday, a survey of the Pennsylvania office was done, finding no contamination on the eight coolers there or in the office.
There is no safety or health risk to workers, the public or the environment from these pieces of equipment.
Erik Olds, Department of Energy
“There is no safety or health risk to workers, the public or the environment from these pieces of equipment,” said Erik Olds, chief of staff for the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office, in a statement Friday.
But “out of an abundance of caution, the department has offered to perform bioassays for employees at the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh facilities to monitor for potential exposures,” Olds said. Urine samples often are used for bioassays.
DOE plans an assessment at Hanford to look at whether standards were followed for allowing equipment to leave facilities and the site.
CH2M Hill has temporarily stopped high-hazard work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant both to look at the incident this month and the series of incidents over six months. High hazard work often is scaled back around Christmas at Hanford because accidents can increase when workers are distracted.
Workers are continuing non-hazardous work at the plant that focuses primarily on actions identified earlier to improve radiological safety at the plant in light of contamination incidents since July and safety improvements being developed in response to the most recent incident, according to DOE.
“The department takes this matter very seriously, and protection of human health and the environment is the department’s top priority,” Olds said.