"It's the most disorganized, unstructured mess that I've looked into in some time," says Rep. Paul Rogers (D-Fla.), whose House health subcommittee is investigating reports of possible radiation-created cancer here.
Rogers has accused the Department of Energy of "covering up" evidence that supports initial findings of work-related cancer risks in this concentrated community of atomic workers.
Tom Doyle, who informally monitors the health of his fellow nuclear workers for the Atomic Workers Union local, traveled to the nation's capital in February with several nuclear workers from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to meet with researchers Thomas Mancuso and Alice Stewart and the health and safety committee of the AFL-CIO.
The committee, according to one participant, voted overwhelmingly to support the continuation of and government finding for students of occupational cancer risks from low-level radiation leaks at the Hanford plant under the controversial Mancusa, a University of Pittsburg scientist whose initial studies of workers here pointed to cancer risks.
The vote was seen as a reversal of the AFL-CIO's earlier policy of full support for the nuclear industry. Mancuso's government funding since has run out but he hopes to continue research with private funding.
Doyle considers a slightly higher rate of cancer an acceptable risk. "I'd rather be working here than in a coal mine," he says.
If proven accurate, the Mancuso study could have a profound effect on the nuclear industry. The Pittsburgh scientist has recommended that the permissible exposure of nuclear employes be reduced 10 times - from five rads to 0.5 rads per year. (A rad is a unit of absorbed radiation.)
Washington Public Power contends that its three new power plants will meet that standard, although it is acknowledged that some specific procedures and maintenance functions could release higher dosages. But executives both at United Nuclear Corp. and Rockwell International have doubts whether drastically lowered standards could be achieved on older facilities without extensive, if not economically prohibitive re-engineering.
The other alternative would be higher staffing ratios to avoid pro-longed individual exposure and early retirement if individuals' cumulative rad total passed the reduced standard.
United Nuclear accused its employes of pushing for exactly that, when in 1967 workers as "N" reactor struck to reduce the maximum yearly exposure from five rads to three.
The employes, who contend they were solely concerned with the health issue, won that demand after a 105-day walkout.
The linkage of low-level radiation to cancer, if proved, also could set off a deluge of liability and workers compensation claims against both nuclear companies and the federal government. It would also support the law-suits of soldier who participated in Army atomic tests and subsequently contracted cancer. According to published estimates, such claims could amount to $5 billion.
The Mancuso findings could also have a severe effect on the medical professional, limiting X-rays and similar treatments.
It should then come as no surprise that many in the nuclear industry view the Mancuso study as an anti-nuclear stalking horse for the environmental movement. "Of that," acknowledges United Nuclear's Ronald Robinson in a slow, measured tone, "there is no doubt in my mind."
If the potential health hazard of low-level radiation is the latest pitfall facing the nuclear industry, the controversy over waste disposal in one of the earliest.
In the wartime rush to construct the weapons reactors, apparently little thought was given to the thousands of tons of radioactive liquid, solid refuse, everything from radioactive dust pans to gloves to huge pieces of equipment.Like things supposed dead, the refuse was buried, in single-walled steel tanks and asphalt-lined trenches, on flatcars in abandoned railway tunnels.
The farms that once dotted these arid plains were replaced by farms of a different kind - tank farms. Visible only as high mounds topped by sagebrush and tangles of protruding pipes, the buried tanks are ringed by a singled warning wire such as a backyard gardner would erect to keep passersby off his newly planted seeds.
Rockwell International is the latest of several companies that have come to Hanford to manage waste disposal.
At Hanford, which can be considered the source of the problem, it should not be surprising that Rockwell believes it has found the solution.
The first step is the construction of one million gallon double-shell "cup and saucer" tanks. Equipped with sophisticated leak detection equipment, the first three tanks were completed in 1977, nine more will be finished by 1980.Transfer of liquid wastes into these double-shell tanks, Rockwell says, should eliminate the leaks that have plagued the reservation and have threatened the pollution of the nearby Columbia river.
The second step is the evaporation and crystalization of liquid wastes to solid chemical salt cake and sludge. Hanford's current backlog of more than 130 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste will produce 37 million gallons of solid salt.
But this is not what the industry refers to as "terminal storage." That solution, believes both DOE and Rockwell engineers, will be with what they call geologic storage, a series of shafts and tunnels 1,000 to 5,000 feet below the ground.
Given their belief that they have found a technical solution to the problems of nuclear energy, the industry here is convinctd that the more serious problems are public relations and politics.
"It (nuclear wastes) is perceived to be a very bad problem, particularly given the present environment. But let that change and the perceptions might change," says D.J. Cockeram, general manager of the Rockwell plant. "Given a permanent embargo of Arabian oil, people will be very interested in proceeding quickly with nuclear power."