RICHLAND - In 1962, after one of Hanford's worst accidents, Robert Colley of Richland was one of three men to volunteer to enter the contaminated plutonium finishing plant to make sure no one remained inside.
Employees on one shift had left a batch of a plutonium solution in a container inside the plant. Unaware, the next crew added more plutonium-laced liquid.
"That made a subcriticality, and it blew," Colley said.
Today Colley is fighting cancer that he fears might have been caused by that event or the many other times he was exposed to radiation as a senior radiation monitor for 33 years at Hanford.
He was the first person to sign up for compensation and medical coverage at the Hanford Area Resource Center, which was dedicated in Kennewick at a ceremony July 28.
After decades of fighting claims by nuclear workers who feared their cancers or other illnesses were caused by on-the-job exposure, the federal government is paying ill workers or their survivors $150,000 and covering medical expenses.
The law that makes the money available, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, went into effect last Tuesday.
"It's always good to remind ourselves what Hanford is about," said U.S. Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings, R-Yakima, at the dedication ceremony. "When it was conceived, we were in a hot war. We didn't know if Germany had technology to end the war."
The prototype of the first reactor, the B Reactor, was not finished when thousands of workers began arriving to build it.
"Surely, mistakes were made," Hastings said. "After all, we were dealing with something you couldn't see."
But the work at Hanford helped win World War II and contributed to what could be considered a victory in the Cold War, too, Hastings said.
Colley, who is responding well to cancer treatments, said he has no regrets. During the 1962 accident, he was 40, making him one of the older people in his group. The three volunteers to enter the plant "didn't figure on having any more family," he said.
"We knew what we would be exposed to, and we knew how much time we had" inside the plant, he said.
They figured they had about an hour to check the plant, which would expose them to radiation totaling 25 rems, he said. Normally, they were limited to 3 rems a year.
Colley remembers signing a waiver saying that he was willing to be exposed to the radiation but that the contractor must continue to let him work after he reached his dose limit for the year.
"It was a good job, and I had fine people to work with," he said.
The resource-center office, operated by the U.S. Energy and Labor departments, opened last week. Workers, retirees and survivors can pick up forms and also get help filling out the forms. Forms also may be downloaded from the Internet at www.dol.gov.
Hanford workers with any type of cancer or lung disease caused by breathing in beryllium are eligible for compensation.
number of survivors eligible for a maximum $150,000 benefit is limited.
Children of survivors, for instance, must have been dependent on the parent
at the time of death.
Nuclear criticalities are often covered up by DOE managers. ORNL has two
criticaity events covered up, one at MSRE and the other the Gunnite Tanks,
and there are likely many others.