State considers pausing Hanford Perma-Fix shipments

The Washington State Department of Health is considering whether Hanford shipments of plutonium-contaminated gloveboxes to Perma-Fix Northwest in Richland should be temporarily suspended.

The temporary ban is being considered after a June 19 incident with a container holding glovebox sections, in which radioactive contamination was spread at the plant.

However, it remains unclear if the contamination was on the shipment when it arrived. The Department of Energy had surveyed the glovebox sections before they were shipped and believed they were free of external radioactive contamination.

The Department of Health said in a report on the incident released by Hanford Challenge late Friday afternoon that the state has concerns about Perma-Fix opening shipping containers outside in the open air and moving equipment without a containment system. Hanford Challenge is a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog group.

A department employee recommended to state managers that shipments be suspended until Perma-Fix submits an incident report that includes an analysis of the cause, the state reviews the report and Perma-Fix develops a procedure to off-load waste shipments that minimizes the spread of contamination.

It also wants Perma-Fix to take air samples when waste shipments are off-loaded.

On June 19 work started to unload a shipping container with two glovebox sections removed from Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant on an outdoor pad outside a Perma-Fix truck bay. The glovebox sections had been sent to Perma-Fix, which is near Hanford, to be cut into smaller pieces, Hanford officials said.

Before the shipment was unloaded and moved to a ventilated building, radioactive contamination was found on one of the glovebox sections, according to the Department of Health report.

Workers had been required to enter the shipping container to slip the rigger under the glovebox sections so they could be lifted and workers were not wearing protective equipment, according to the report.

Preliminary air sample results, surveys of workers and nasal smears of workers did not indicate any of the radioactive material had become airborne or had been breathed in by workers, according to the report.

However, contamination was found on the outdoor pad, the rigging used to lift the glovebox sections out of the shipping container, a forklift and the underside of one of the glovebox sections.

There was no answer at Perma-Fix Northwest late Friday afternoon.