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More Tank Dangers Seen at Hanford

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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In a scenario he likens to the movie Groundhog Day, a U.S. Senator is reporting new disclosures of radioactive leak risks due to flawed tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Upwards of 16 million gallons of "high-level" radioactive waste are contained in 19 tanks that have "significant construction flaws" or may be otherwise compromised, according to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a longtime Hanford watchdog.

Hanford Pump Removal
Images unless indicated: U.S. DOE

Hanford's Tank Farms contain nearly 177 single- and double-shell tanks.

In a sharply worded letter last week to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Wyden accuses the Department of Energy of continuing to conceal information about hazards at the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

The 586-acre site, created in 1943 to develop nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project, is the focus of the nation's largest environmental cleanup effort, which began in 1989 and is being overseen by the DOE.

Hanford contains more than 50 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks.

From Asbestos to Wage Fraud

A variety of problems at the site—including multimillion-dollar wage fraud, asbestos contamination and inspection lapses—have come to light in recent years. In addition, reports leaked last April warned of explosion risks at the site due to leaking tanks, design flaws and poor safety practices.

The State of Washington joined the chorus of critics in January, accusing the DOE in a letter of doing a shoddy job managing the cleanup. In that letter, state officials specifically express concern about a double-shell tank, known as Tank AY-102, that had been leaking into its secondary containment since 2012.

DOE was unable to provide a cause for the leak and called it an isolated issue.

Now, Wyden says that other tanks have similar problems—and that the DOE knew that all along.

Tank Hazards

Wyden cites internal DOE inspection reports from October 2012  and July 2013 that detail extensive problems with Tank AY-102 and others like it. AY-102 was the first double-shell tank put into service at Hanford. It stores the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant hot commissioning feed.

Hanford Site - 1960

Cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (pictured in 1960) began in 1989. A legacy of the Manhattan Project, the site hosted nine nuclear reactors and five large plutonium processing complexes during the Cold War.

"Tank AY-102 construction records detail a tank plagued by first-of-a-kind construction difficulties and trial-and-error repairs," the 2012 report says. "The result was a tank whose as-constructed robustness was much lower than intended by the double-shell tank designers."

The report cites rejected welds, bulges in containment lines, rainwater saturation problems, and structural irregularities that were plugged with Styrofoam. At the time, the report said, the tank had leaked "between 190 and 520" gallons.

Concern Over 'Tank Integrity'

In his letter to Moniz, Wyden said he had learned only recently that six other tanks containing five million gallons of high-level waste "have construction flaws similar" to those of Tank AY-102 and that "13 additional [double-shell tanks] may also be compromised."

The condition of the 13 tanks, which hold about 12 million gallons of high-level waste, "leave room for uncertainty of long-term tank integrity," according to one of the internal DOE reports Wyden cited.

The 14-acre Plutonium Finishing Plant is Hanford's "most hazardous facility and poses a monumental cleanup challenge," DOE reports.

"Given how important this issue is to future high-level waste operations and to the development of any sort of framework or plan to high-level waste clean-up, the Department's failure to clearly identify and address these known tank vulnerabilities in the September framework document, or since, is indefensible," Wyden wrote.

'Hiding the Ball'

He added, "It is essential that DOE quickly come forward and present the region with a genuine plan for dealing with these growing risks."

Sen. Ron Wyden Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz
Official photos

Sen. Ron Wyden (left), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is demanding answers from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

"It is time for the Department to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed."

Residents living near the Columbia River "deserve to know the full story of what is happening with the Hanford tanks, and they deserve to know what DOE is going to do to protect them from this threat," Wyden wrote.

DOE's latest progress report on the Hanford cleanup is available here.

   

Tagged categories: Cleanup; Environmental Protection; Government contracts; Nuclear Power Plants; Tanks and vessels

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