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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Can Hanford's Tank Vapor Problems Be Fixed?

U.S. Department of Energy

Each year federal and state managers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington give a rundown on how things are going.

Call it the Hanford "State of the Site address."

Last night’s conversation was dominated by what’s being done to improve conditions for workers at Hanford’s radioactive tank farms. These large tanks store the leftover sludge from plutonium production during World War II and the Cold War.

This past year, dozens of workers have complained about becoming ill after smelling vapors at the site. Workers claim that there isn’t enough real-time monitoring of the chemicals they’re exposed to or enough study of their health once they have been exposed.

Sheldon Coleman introduced himself as a retired industrial hygienist who worked at Hanford for 27 years. He said, “I don’t care how many people you throw at the problem, or how many dollars that you put into the tank farm safety system. If you don’t have the confidence of the people, you’ve failed.”

The feds say they have asked a top government lab to look at the tank vapor problems. But Seattle-based Hanford watchdog Tom Carpenter responded that the nuclear site has done many vapor studies over the decades and workers continue to get sick.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.