The federal government is doing an “unacceptable” job of removing waste that has been leaking from a Hanford Site nuclear tank for at least 16 months, Washington State officials say.
A leaking double-shell nuclear tank discovered in August 2012 at the Hanford Site in Washington has seen no remedial action from the U.S. Department of Energy and its prime contractor for the tanks, Washington River Protection Solutions, the state said in a letter Jan. 9.
The structure, Tank AY-102, was the first double-shell radioactive waste storage tank constructed at Hanford. The tank holds more than 850,000 gallons.
The letter from the Washington State Department of Ecology says that DOE's June 2013 "wait and see" plan for the tank won't cut it—and that the state wants a workable plan for pumping out the waste by Feb. 15.
Photos: Department of Energy
Washington State officials are "deeply disappointed" with the Department of Energy's response to a leaking primary containment tank at the Hanford Site.
"In short, we are deeply disappointed," wrote Jane A. Hedges, program manager of the department's Nuclear Waste Program.
Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and one of the largest and most complex hazardous waste sites in the world. The site is located in southeastern Washington on 586 square miles of desert.
DOE Plan: Wait and See
The DOE plan of June 2013 said it would take about 19 months to complete planning, procurement and installation of the equipment needed to pump solids from the primary tank.
"At this time, however, removal of the waste from the primary tank is not practicable, nor is it necessary to prevent release to the environment," the DOE said.
Instead of immediately removing the waste, the plan proposed to continue enhanced monitoring and proceed with procurement and planning in case conditions changed.
The DOE also predicted that it would take until 2019 to remove the tank's contents and transfer them to other double-shell tanks at the facility.
Waiting to Worsen
The state had requested a tank pumping plan in May 2013 that would demonstrate the "earliest practicable time" for completing waste removal after routine visual inspections in August 2012 identified waste material leaking from the primary containment of Tank AY-102.
The leaking tank was the first double-shell radioactive waste storage tank constructed at Hanford. Leaks were first discovered in August 2012.
According to the DOE, the tank's construction records "detail a tank plagued by first-of-a-kind construction difficulties and trial-and-error repairs," leaving the primary tank bottom with residual stresses that "could not be foreseen by the designers" and providing a "fertile incubator for sustained corrosion to take place."
"Your proposal, as we understand it, is to monitor the leaking Tank AY-102 and take no action to remove its waste until conditions get worse," Hedges said. "This is unacceptable."
Hedges added, "Currently, you do not know:
The location of the leak.
The rate of leakage.
The conditions at the leak site.
What effect changes in temperature will have on the leak.
When or how the leak might worsen."
Additionally, the DOE doesn't know how long secondary containment will maintain integrity or, indeed, whether it has been compromised already, the letter says.
"We cannot support merely waiting for conditions to worsen before taking action," Hedges said.
Issues with Pumping
In November 2012, the DOE released a 444-page report, "Tank 241-AY-102 Leak Assessment Report," citing the probable cause of the leak as "corrosion at high temperatures in a tank whose waste containment margins had been reduced by construction difficulties."
The leaking tank contains both waste liquid and sludge, but the DOE has said that it cannot pump only the liquid out of the tank because the sludge would overheat, chemically react, and possibly lead to flammable chemical generation and other problems.
History of Hanford Problems
The Hanford Site was used to produce weapons-grade nuclear material during World War II and the Cold War. Although most of the site has been decommissioned, tens of millions of tons of radioactive waste remain.
The DOE stores more than 50 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in 177 underground tanks at Hanford. Many of the old, single-shell tanks are known to leak, so the DOE transferred most of the liquid waste into newer, double-shell tanks.
Last year, a leaked audit by the Environmental Protection Agency criticized the state's Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program for not having enough inspectors and for not performing required inspections at Hanford.
In October 2013, the EPA proposed a $115,000 fine and a Notice of Violation to the DOE alleging asbestos mismanagement during demolitions at Hanford.