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Workers Complain of Health Problems at 'America's Chernobyl'

The facility, established as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, produced plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal for decades.

Mnet 124842 B Reactor At Hanford Nuclear Site

Workers near a former nuclear facility in Washington state say they were misled about the dangers of the site and are now living with serious, potentially fatal, health complications.

NBC News spoke to numerous current and former employees at the Hanford Nuclear Site outside Richland, Wash.

The facility, established as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, produced plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal for decaAlthough it was shuttered in 1987, the site still contains 177 underground storage tanks containing some 56 million gallons of toxic waste.

Washington River Protection Solutions is overseeing the cleanup of the site for the Energy Department β€” a $110 billion project expected to last another 50 years β€” but leaks from the underground tanks are jeopardizing cleanup personnel.
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Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

A former Energy Department official told NBC that air measurements from the site were within occupational limits and that managers took steps to improve communication with workers. The site also now features a $50 million air monitoring system.

"I wish we had a more complete understanding of those circumstances," said Mark Whitney, the DOE's assistant deputy secretary who has since left the agency.

Previous DOE documents, however, indicated that tests showed excessive levels of toxins linked to lung and brain damage β€” and that the agency could not control the dangers and did not warn staff.

Workers said that they were kept in the dark about the risks of their work and were rarely allowed to wear protective gear recommended by DOE. WRPS recently reached an agreement to provide masks to workers.

"We're told daily that it's safe," one current employee told the network.

Former workers, meanwhile, told NBC they experienced memory loss, respiratory issues and nerve damage. An advocacy group blamed three deaths on exposure to toxic chemicals at Hanford.

Washington state officials vowed to investigate and the state attorney general filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the controversy.

Observers, meanwhile, warned that any sort of explosion involving the storage tanks could contaminate a much larger area β€” including the nearby Columbia River.

"When you think about the risk not only to workers but also to our water supply, it's like a Stephen King novel." Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib told the network. "This is something that I think everyone in the country should be thinking about."

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