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Environment and Planning
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.

Low Levels Of Airborne Contamination Escaping Demolition Area At Hanford

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Anna King
/
Northwest News Network

Top state health officials are concerned that radioactive waste in the air is spreading around the Hanford site in southeast Washington. It’s mostly from that same demolition site that’s contaminated two workers, dozens of vehicles and closed down nearby offices.

Both state and federal officials are monitoring the air around the Plutonium Finishing Plant with metal disks called “cookie sheets” and air-sipping filter machines. They’re finding traces of plutonium and americium.

Some of that contamination is escaping the demolition site and getting into areas that are publicly accessible.

John Martell is the manager of the state Department of Health’s Radioactive Air Emissions program. He said in his more than two decades there, he’s never seen anything like it.

“We want to make sure that contamination stays within the work area within the contamination area that it’s expected to be in,” Martell said. “And so seeing those numbers out there is an indication their [federal contractors] controls are not working.”

Martell did stress the levels of contamination are low, and he doesn’t believe there is any serious public health risk.