A Different Kind of Leak Gives Lie to DOE’s Hanford “Clean-Up”

By:  The Sun Break - Michael van Baker
Source: The Sun Break

News organizations (KOMO, KING, CBS, AP)  are reporting today that a double-walled tank at Hanford (AY-102) may be leaking highly radioactive waste into the soil below it, based on heightened measurements of contamination in that area. Previously, when word of the leak in AY-102 leaked out in 2012 (see: “Hanford worker’s struggle to ‘do the right thing‘”), the waste was thought to be contained within the double walls.

Though it was known that the tank contained some 707,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste, Department of Energy assistant manager of the tank farms Tom Fletcher minimized the risk at the time, saying: ”This is fixed contamination on the floor. There is no liquid. There is no vapor.” By June 2013, visible evidence of wet radioactive waste, amounting to almost a half-gallon, was being reported.

This isn’t Hanford’s only ongoing leak. At least six single-walled tanks are leaking radioactive waste as well. In mid-February, the DOE confirmed that T-111 was leaking 150 to 300 gallons of radioactive liquid waste each year. (The following week, five more leaking tanks were reported by DOE.) It’s accepted that, over the decades since the tanks were built, 67 have leaked over one million gallons into the soil, contamination that over time makes its way into groundwater a few hundred feet below the tanks, and toward the Columbia River, some five to eight miles distant.

But AY-102 is one of 28 double-walled tanks built to hold millions of gallons of the most radioactive waste Hanford had created — waste that literally boils from the heat generated by Strontium-90. If its containment failure is proven, it’s not a good sign for the health of the remaining tanks, which the DOE had been hoping would last until 2052. AY-102 was also supposed to play a crucial feeder role in the clean-up of tanks going forward.

Confirmation of  the leak between the walls should have triggered Washington law calling for an immediate response:

(i) If the release was from the tank system, the owner/operator must, within twenty-four hours after detection of the leak or, if the owner/operator demonstrates that it is not possible, at the earliest practicable time, remove as much of the waste as is necessary to prevent further release of dangerous waste to the environment and to allow inspection and repair of the tank system to be performed.

(ii) If the material released was to a secondary containment system, all released materials must be removed within twenty-four hours or in as timely a manner as is possible to prevent harm to human health and the environment.

Instead, the timeline worked like this: DOE took two months to confirm the initial leak between the walls. Six months later, DOE announced to Washington’s Department of Ecology that they’d be sending a plan for pumping the tank by June 14. That plan calls for pumping to be complete by 2019. So, released materials will not be removed within 24 hours: more like six or seven years, depending on when you started the clock ticking.

Stories about Hanford seem to recapitulate a cascading set of failures by the Department of Energy in its mismanagement of Hanford’s clean-up, the cost of which, averaging $2 billion per year, now totals some $40 billion. KING 5′s Susannah Frame has been investigating a seemingly endless series of missteps — or intentional footdragging — in just this one incident: for one thing, the leak in AY-102 was first detected in October 2011, but private contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, who took over the DOE tank farm contract in 2008, took a year to admit it. The DOE’s Fletcher, a month after multiple tests showed radioactive contamination, gave the Hanford Advisory Panel the impression that it might simply be rainwater intrusion. Frame discovered that the official confirmation of the leak in AY-102 came on the same day  the public comment period ended for the state’s dangerous waste permit for Hanford.

This week, new U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz made his first visit to Hanford, at the request of Sen. Maria Cantwell.

“You and I have had a chance to have many conversations about a variety of issues but obviously first and foremost on my list is Hanford and Hanford cleanup,” Cantwell told Moniz in an April 2013 hearing. “First of all, I hope that you’ll make it a priority to visit Hanford very soon in your tenure as Secretary of Energy.”

Moniz replied: “My plan would be to get hard briefings immediately, go to the site because I think you need to be there to understand the issues, come back, work with the Chairman, work with you, [Senator] Murray and make sure we get a plan together going forward and do that expeditiously.”