SPOKANE, Wash. - While the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against a 2018 state law that protected workers at a former nuclear weapons production site, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said an updated law passed earlier this year remains in place.
That means thousands of employees at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation can still be compensated for health issues they face because of their work.
"Because the legislature already fixed the issues the federal government raised, there is little practical impact in Washington as a result of this ruling," Ferguson said Tuesday. "Hanford workers, and all others working with dangerous radioactive waste, remain protected."
"The federal government has not challenged this new law. If they do, we will defend these protections all the way back up to the Supreme Court again if we have to," Ferguson said.
Hanford, located near Richland in southcentral Washington state, was created by the Manhattan Project during World War II and made the plutonium for much of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Hanford plutonium was included in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II.
Hanford no longer makes plutonium, but some 10,000 workers are involved in cleaning up a massive volume of nuclear waste that was left behind. The dangerous work is expected to take decades.
The Washington Legislature earlier this year passed a bill that made important clarifications and enhancements to the old 2018 law. Those enhancements, such as ensuring the protections apply to all individuals who work on the Hanford site, address key concerns raised by the federal government.
The Biden administration has not challenged the new law, nor has it indicated it plans to, Ferguson said.
In 2018, the Trump administration filed a lawsuit challenging the prior law. The federal government argued that the law violates "intergovernmental immunity," a legal doctrine that prevents states from regulating federal operations or property. However, in 1936 Congress gave states broad authority to apply their workers’ compensation laws to federal projects.
In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Stanley A. Bastian granted Washington’s motion for summary judgment upholding the prior law. The Trump administration appealed, and in 2020, a panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the law.
Last September, the Biden administration appealed the Ninth Circuit’s unanimous decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.