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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.

Hanford Work Stops At Tank Farms Over Safety Concerns

U.S. Department of Energy
File photo of a crew working on a waste tank at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 2010.

Workers at the Hanford tank farms in southeast Washington state stopped work Monday after a group of unions in Richland called for a halt in the early morning. A union leader said that could mess with about 2,000 people’s schedules at the site.

There’s been really high scrutiny for years at the tank farms. Workers have repeatedly complained that they’re being sickened by whiffs of chemical fumes -- including headaches, nosebleeds, and lung problems.

The unions are demanding that each crew member be supplied with canned air to breathe through a mask when working with sludge in the tank farms until more is known about how to protect workers from tank vapors.

Washington River Protection Solutions, the contractor in charge of the tank farms, said it's honoring the stop-work order by the unions and said it will work with the unions to resolve it. Union leaders say they won’t be compromising.

Hanford is home to more than 50 million gallons of radioactive sludge stored in aging underground tanks not far from the Columbia River. This witch's brew of chemicals and radioactive waste is the leftovers of plutonium production for weapons during WWII and the Cold War.

Cleaning up this waste has fallen behind schedule for multiple deadlines set by stakeholders and the federal government.

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.