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Inspection Lapses at Hanford Leaked

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

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An inability to inspect without written warning, an understaffed team, and missing reports are among the safety problems that federal officials have found with the Hanford nuclear site, a leaked audit draft reveals.

An internal draft of the new Environmental Protection Agency audit was obtained by Hanford Challenge, a group that works "to hold Hanford accountable" by protecting whistleblowers, conducting environmental sampling, and generating resolutions and collaborative opportunities for improving site cleanup.

The 196-page audit, "State Review Framework and Integrated Clean Water Act Permit Quality Review," dated April 29, 2013, was for Federal Fiscal Year 2011 and discusses nuclear waste sites in Washington, including Hanford.

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.

EPA leaked Hanford audit
Photos: Department of Energy

A leaked draft audit of the Hanford nuclear site in Washington was discovered by the Hanford Challenge, an organization dedicated to holding Hanford accountable.

The draft criticizes Washington State's Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program, which oversees Hanford, for not having enough inspectors and not performing required inspections. The EPA has designated the state program to enforce federal hazardous waste laws.

"We have been highly concerned about regulatory capture at Hanford for some time, and we believe that the State needs more of an arms-length relationship from the polluter at Hanford," said Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge Executive Director, in a statement about the audit.

Deal with DOE

According to the audit, the Ecology program has an agreement with the Department of Energy to provide prior written notice of inspection plans and has limited its compliance evaluations to only those areas identified in the written notice.

In at least once instance, inspectors had to return to their office and write a notice to the DOE in order to return to an area where they saw a potential violation and complete the compliance evaluation, the audit said.

"This notification significantly inhibits Ecology's ability to complete inspections which cover the entire facility and to make accurate and timely compliance determinations," the audit stated.

The audit also included the following findings about Hanford:

  • Only two of the 24 units at the facility were inspected in Fiscal Year 2011;
  • Ecology only had two full-time staff to conduct inspections and follow-up for all of the state's mixed waste operations;
  • There was a significant number of missing inspection reports, which created artificially higher compliance inspection counts;
  • Inspection reports were not completed within 150 days;
  • There were discrepancies in the files for final penalty assessments and collections; and
  • The Ecology program is not entering data into the EPA national data system for the Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

"Over the past two years, there has been only one enforcement action at Hanford," Carpenter said. "In the same period of time, Ecology has filed over a thousand such enforcement actions against other polluters in the state."

Follow-Up Actions

Hanford presents "unique challenges for compliance and enforcement," according to the audit. In 2011, data for Hanford showed five evaluations, one violation and one informal action that returned to compliance. However, the audit stated, "We do not expect the Hanford Facility ... to be returned to compliance in the foreseeable future."

Hanford nuclear site

In 2011, only two of the 24 units at Hanford were inspected. The audit found that the Department of Energy had to give prior written consent to inspections at Hanford, and only the areas previously approved could be inspected; additional inspections required additional approvals.

In the draft audit, EPA also recommended several follow-up actions related to Hanford that included:

  • Ecology will commit to inspect at least 50 percent of the permitted Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facilities each year at Hanford and at least 20 percent of the remainder of the facility not covered by the permit;
  • Inspectors won't be required to give any more advance notice to the DOE than given to other facilities in the state;
  • By June 30, Ecology must provide EPA with a plan to improve the timeliness of inspection report completion and to ensure all data entered for inspections are supported by the file documents; and
  • Ecology will develop and present a plan to EPA by Sept. 30 for better coordination between inspectors and enforcement officers to document penalty justifications, settlements and collections.

"We are encouraged that Ecology is willing to add inspectors to the program, and otherwise make changes to its oversight process at Hanford," said Carpenter.

"We encourage the State to assure that the Nuclear Waste Program is empowered and expected to conduct rigorous, arms-length oversight. and that the program has sufficient resources to conduct effective regulatory enforcement."

Hanford Background

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 remains.

Now, the Department of Energy 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.

Hanford site inspection

Earlier this year, CH2M Hill Companies pleaded guilty in a time-card fraud scheme at the Hanford site that lasted from 1999 to 2008.

But in August 2012, it was discovered that a double-shell tank was leaking. The DOE's safety analyses show enough flammable gas in many of the double-shell tanks to reach flammable conditions without proper ventilation.

Time Card Fraud, Recent Issues

In March, CH2M Hill and subsidiary CH2M Hill Hanford Group Inc. pleaded guilty to engaging in time card fraud at Hanford from 1999 to 2008.

Eight employees pleaded guilty to felony charges, one of which was the whistleblower. The scheme cost the company $18.5 million in penalties and restituion.

The company admitted that under its $2.6 billion nuclear tank cleaning contract that tied the company's fees to the wages it paid, employees routinely overstated the number of hours they worked and management condoned the practice and submitted the inflated, fraudulent claims.

The company avoided criminal prosecution under a Non-Prosecution Agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Washington.

Also, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board stated in April that it had concerns with unresolved technical issues related to the design of the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant and the state of safety culture at Hanford.

According to the board, the DOE has not resolved several technical issues with the plant and the "flawed safety culture" was inhibiting the resolution of technical and safety issues.


Tagged categories: Cleanup; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Government contracts; Hazardous waste; Inspection; Nuclear Power Plants

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