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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.

Contractor Confirms Several Low-Level Plutonium Exposures At Hanford

U.S. Department of Energy
U.S. Department of Energy
File photo of the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford prior to demolition.

Back in June, there was an emergency at the Hanford nuclear site where workers were ordered to take cover. A sensor was detecting airborne radioactive particles.

Now KING-TV reports several workers have tested positive for those particles inside their bodies.

The workers were demolishing the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The building was used to make plutonium nuggets about the size of hockey pucks for bombs in the Cold War. Hanford contractor CH2M Hill won’t comment on exactly how many positive tests have come back, but several workers have eaten radioactive particles. ?

That means workers likely breathed in dust with small amounts of plutonium, then breathed the dust out. The particles got hung up in their saliva and they swallowed. CH2M Hill is now testing about 300 workers’ feces. The contractor expects to be done with the testing in six weeks. ?

A CH2M Hill spokesman wouldn’t answer any questions about whether these workers who did test positive would have additional testing on their bodies—particularly their lungs.

The federal contractor said all exposed workers have less than a millirem in them detected so far. And experts on the health effects of plutonium say that’s about the amount of radiation you’d get from a cross-country flight.  ?

CH2M Hill said it has developed new plans to help limit exposures in the future like keeping more dust down by spraying water and a sticky solution and sucking air into a ventilation system on the building during demo. 

?All of the workers who’ve ingested plutonium will have this information recorded as part of their official Hanford work health history.

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.