Nuke Cleanup Workers Fear for Their Health

It is the dirty legacy of America's nuclear weapons program -- appalling conditions, and chemicals leaking into the ground at the nation's biggest nuclear waste site.

During the Cold War, the Hanford complex in Washington state produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, generating enormous amounts of radioactive waste.

Now, some of the 11,000 people working for the companies hired to clean up Hanford say their lives are being put at risk because of dangerous conditions. Several have filed workers' compensation claims.

"I've lost loved ones and friends that have died out there for unknown respiratory problems," said Richard Brooks, a Hanford worker.

Tom Young said he has been harassed by supervisors, even threatened for speaking up about safety concerns.

"One top level manager made a quote that it wasn't any more harmful than smelling a baby's diaper," Young said.

'Outrageously Dangerous'

In fact, scientists say the government hasn't even identified all the chemicals that are part of the cleanup. Hundreds, many known to cause cancer, were dumped together decades ago, often without any records.

"I would say it's outrageously dangerous," said toxicologist Tim Jarvis, who has studied Hanford and provided safety analysis for injured workers. "You're not going to work out there for 15 years and have a normal lifespan."

The Federal Government wants Hanford cleaned up and fast. And that it turns out may be the problem. Companies here can receive millions of dollars in bonuses for getting the work done quickly.

In such a dangerous place, critics say that is an incentive counterproductive to safety. They allege contractors have sought to cover up anything that can slow their work, including on-the-job injuries.

Diane Brooks said she witnessed it while working at a Hanford health clinic.

"They'd ask for us to call up the document again and change it to a non-work related injury … from work related," she said "It was done. … I did it."

Because few records were kept, it is difficult to know exactly how many workers are sick or injured -- but a federal audit concluded the number is far higher than the contractors have reported.

Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project said the biggest problem at Hanford is that the government made the mess and is in charge of overseeing its cleanup.

"When you put yourself in a position of regulating yourself," he added, "then you know you can let things slip by the cracks -- especially if it's gonna cost you more money."

Government: Seeking Worker Safety

The Department of Energy is aware of past problems -- with safety issues and with contractors -- and says it is now watching closely to ensure that workers are kept safe.

Officials added that all cleanup workers are now given respirators to protect against exposures.

"Being that there may be some contractors out there that do exist that are driven the profit line," said Glenn Podonsky of the Department of Energy, "when we find that they no longer work for the Department of Energy."

But the problems persist.

This week's government audit found cleanup workers are still afraid to report safety problems.

And the cost of the plant being built to dispose of the most dangerous waste at Hanford is skyrocketing, the report said, up 150 percent to $11.3 billion. Plus, construction is six years behind schedule, now expected to be completed in 2018.

If you have questions about whistleblower protection, you can contact the Government Accountability Project at http://www.whistleblower.org/template/index.cfm.

ABC News' Neal Karlinsky and Sandy Nunez originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" on April 8, 2006.