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  • Cold War, Hot MessAfter decades of mismanaging its nuclear waste, the US Department of Energy wrestles with its toxic legacy
  • Lois Parshley (bio) and Sean McDermott (bio)

reporting, nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, radiation, radioactive substances, nuclear contamination, pollution, public health, science, radiation epidemiology, illness/disease, radiation cleanup, environment

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A hazmat-suit respirator on display at the Hanford REACH Interpretive Center.

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In August 2015, Abe Garza and a small crew of technicians headed out across the scrub plains of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which sprawls over hundreds of square miles in eastern Washington. They were planning a routine inspection of the site's holding tanks, which contain millions of gallons of nuclear waste, created over decades as the site produced two-thirds of the country's plutonium. Garza's job was to calibrate the tanks' monitoring equipment, a task he'd performed countless times in his nearly three decades working at Hanford. Shortly after he arrived at the work site, his nose started bleeding, and wouldn't stop. Another crew member complained of a terrible headache. A third said he could smell something like onions. (Previous chemical exposures at work had destroyed Garza's ability to smell.) Garza knew right away something had gone wrong, but it was already too late: A potentially lethal cloud of chemicals was sweeping over them. "It's like it consumes you," says Nick Bumpaous, Political Action Committee Chairman at Local Union 598, who's counseled many Hanford workers after these kinds of exposures. "You can't get out of it, and you don't know which way to run, and you can't breathe. They're leaned over puking, and their nose is bleeding, and their eyes are just watering like nobody's business."

The particular underground tank Garza's crew was working on was about the size of an elementary-school gym and contained what he calls a "witches' brew"—radioactive substances mixed with other highly toxic heavy metals, such as mercury and beryllium. There are 177 of these tanks at Hanford, and their slurry forms bubbles, like juice under a pie crust. Over time, toxic vapors seep up into the pocket of air at the top of the tank, along with hydrogen and oxygen, both highly flammable gases. These vapors are carefully ventilated to relieve pressure and mitigate the danger of tank explosions. As Garza later discovered, another team had been working on a nearby tank, disturbing its slurry and releasing this toxic mix into the air before his own unsuspecting crew arrived.

After the men recovered enough to leave, Garza reported his vapor exposure to his [End Page 48]

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Hanford's B Reactor, now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Even though most of the site is now deemed safe for the public, warning signs for radiological hazards are reminders that the effects of decades of contamination have not disappeared.

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The Hanford Site, which is managed by the Department of Energy, is an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island. Though cleanup efforts have been underway at Hanford since 1989, hazardous materials remain in the site's soil and groundwater along the Columbia River.

supervisor. (Several colleagues who were new to Hanford and afraid of losing their jobs chose not to.) At home, he couldn't get rid of a strange, metallic taste. His wife, Bertolla Bugarin, tried to get him to go to the hospital, but it wasn't until the next morning, when he woke up with his lungs crackling, that he finally agreed. When they arrived at the emergency room, Garza's oxygen levels were dangerously low. After being stabilized, he was released, but his difficulties were just beginning. Over the next several months, various specialists eventually diagnosed Garza with occupational asthma, heavy-metal poisoning, and toxic encephalopathy—a degenerative neurological condition that is often associated with dementia and is frequently fatal.

Garza's experience is common among Hanford workers; in July 2021, a new state report found that a shocking 57 percent of Hanford workers...


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