Nuke Cleanup Workers Fear for Their Health

ByABC News
April 8, 2006, 6:45 PM

RICHLAND, Wash., April 9, 2006 — -- 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.

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.