Tag Archives: hanford

Toxic Vapors and the 50 Million Gallons of Nuclear Waste

hanford_d_reactor

A federal court hearing set for October 2016 could reshape safety rules at the federal government’s Hanford nuclear-weapons-production complex in south central Washington state, where critics contend noxious vapors from underground tanks have harmed workers.At the hearing in Spokane, Wash., Judge Thomas O. Rice plans to consider motions filed by the Washington attorney general and private parties for a preliminary injunction requiring that certain safety measures be taken, including greater use of portable breathing apparatuses.

The parties say workers were exposed to vapors from the underground tanks, which hold more than 50 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste. The waste was created when Hanford, which closed in the late 1980s, produced plutonium for the atomic-weapons program.

The injunction requests are part of litigation filed last year over the vapor issue against the Energy Department and one of its major Hanford contractors by the state, as well as an environmental and workers-advocacy group and a local labor union.

Earlier in 2016 “over 50 Hanford tank farm workers were sickened by toxic vapors spewed into the air,” said a court filing by the attorney general’s office. Over the years, hundreds or more workers have suffered problems ranging from nosebleeds and headaches to long-term lung and brain damage, the plaintiffs contend….

The Energy Department, which oversees the cleanup, in a court filing called the injunction motions “an unwarranted intrusion into DOE’s ongoing cleanup operations, including the world-class worker-safety and industrial-hygiene measures” the agency has put in place….Granting the preliminary injunction could also delay by up to five years efforts to comply with a separate court-mandated schedule for emptying tanks as part of a long-term plan to treat and dispose of the waste, the filing said. Among other things, workers using supplied-air packs “generally move more slowly,” it added.

Excerpts from At Hanford Nuclear Site, Hearing on Tap After Workers Complain of Noxious Vapors, WSJ, Oct. 1, 2016

A Leaking Atom Bomb: Hanford, United States

Hanford in 1960 Image from wikipedia

There are “significant construction flaws” in some newer, double-walled storage tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear waste complex, which could lead to additional leaks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.  Those tanks hold some of the worst radioactive waste at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

One of the 28 giant underground tanks was found to be leaking in 2013. But subsequent surveys of other double-walled tanks performed for the U.S. Department of Energy by one of its Hanford contractors found at least six shared defects with the leaking tank that could lead to future leaks, the documents said. Thirteen additional tanks also might be compromised, according to the documents.  Questions about the storage tanks jeopardize efforts to clean up radioactive waste at the southeastern Washington site. Those efforts already cost taxpayers about $2 billion a year.  “It is time for the Department (of Energy) to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote this week in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz…

Hanford contains some 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive wastes from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. They are stored in 177 underground storage tanks, many of which date back to World War II and are single-walled models that have leaked. The 28 double-walled tanks were built from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Current plans call for transferring wastes from leaking single-walled tanks to the newer and bigger double-walled tanks, where the waste will be stored while a $13 billion plant for treating the waste is constructed. But the treatment plant is plagued with design problems and construction has stalled.  The situation did not appear dire until the news in October 2012 that the oldest of the double-walled tanks, called AY-102, had leaked, becoming the first of those 28 tanks to do so.

At the time, the Energy Department blamed construction problems with this particular tank for the leak and said it “seems unlikely” that the other double-walled tanks would leak.  However, Wyden said engineering reviews of six other double-walled tanks “found significant construction flaws in those six tanks essentially similar to those at the leaking tank.” Those six tanks contain about 5 million gallons of radioactive wastes, wrote Wyden, who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee….

Hanford, located near the city of Richland, stores about two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste.  Officials have said the leaking materials pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take perhaps years for the chemicals to reach groundwater.  The federal government built Hanford at the height of World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Excerpts from Drew Vattiat, Hanford’s worst radioactive waste vulnerable to leaks from flaws in newer storage tanks, Associated Press, Feb. 28, 2014

The Nuclear Waste Administration Bill of 2013: United States

department of energy nuclear sites map

Today four senior U.S. senators introduced a bipartisan, comprehensive plan for safeguarding and permanently disposing of tens of thousands of tons of dangerous radioactive nuclear waste currently accumulating at sites dispersed across the country.  Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. – the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development – and Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, collaborated on the proposal, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 (S. 1240).  “Stalemate can’t solve our nation’s nuclear waste issues. This bill takes immediate steps to more safely store the most dangerous radioactive waste, and lays out a clear plan for a permanent solution,” Wyden said… “This bipartisan bill—years in the making—will finally begin to address the dangerous, expensive absence of a comprehensive nuclear waste policy,” Feinstein said. “In addition to creating an independent Nuclear Waste Administration to manage nuclear waste, the bill authorizes the construction of interim storage facilities and permanent waste repositories, sited through a consent-based process and funded by fees currently collected from nuclear power ratepayers. The inability of the federal government to collect waste stored across the country at functioning power plants, decommissioned reactors and federal facilities is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It’s time to finally put a policy in place to address this problem.”…Currently there is no central repository for spent nuclear fuel, leaving fuel rods to be stored on-site at dozens of commercial nuclear facilities around the country, including areas that are at risk of earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters. Millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons programs are also being stored at Department of Energy sites around the country. The 2011 Fukushima disaster, combined with recent announcements of new radioactive waste leaks at the Hanford Site in Washington State add to the urgency of securing spent fuel and finding permanent repository for the nation’s nuclear waste.

The bill updates an April draft, after the Energy committee received more than 2,500 public comments on the measure. It includes establishment of a new nuclear waste administration and creates a consent-based process for siting nuclear waste facilities. It also enables the federal government to address its commitment to managing commercial nuclear waste, limiting the costly liability the government bears for its failure to dispose of commercial spent fuel. The integrated storage and repository system established by this legislation will expand opportunities for nuclear power to supply low-carbon energy, and will provide long-term protection of public health and safety for both commercial and defense high-level waste.  The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is planning a hearing on the bill in Jul, 2013.. The date and witnesses will be announced when they are confirmed.

Senators Introduce Bipartisan, Comprehensive Nuclear Waste Legislation, http://www.energy.senate.gov,  June 27, 2013

The Bill

One Page Summary

Section by Section Analysis

 

 

Nowhere to Go? Nuclear Waste from Washington to New Mexico

WIPP.  Installing supports in waste disposal rooms to keep them stable until filled.  image from wikipedia

Federal officials are looking to ship some 3 million gallons of radioactive waste from Washington state to New Mexico, giving the government more flexibility to deal with leaking tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation…The Department of Energy said its preferred plan would ultimately dispose of the waste in a massive repository – called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – near Carlsbad, N.M, where radioactive materials are buried in rooms excavated in vast salt beds nearly a half-mile underground.

The federal proposal was quickly met with criticism from a New Mexico environmental group that said the state permit allowing the government to bury waste at the plant would not allow for shipments from Hanford, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.  Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said WIPP specifically prohibits waste from Hanford and any proposal to modify permit language in this case would need “strong justification and public input.”  “WIPP has demonstrated success in its handling of defense TRU waste,” Udall said in a statement. “With regard to Hanford waste, I urge all parties involved to exhibit caution and scientific integrity to ensure that DOE is abiding by the law and that the waste classifications are justified.”  The waste near Carlsbad includes such things as clothing, tools and other debris.

The transfer from Washington would target so-called transuranic waste, which is less radioactive than some of the sludge at Hanford, and accounts for a fraction of the roughly 50 million gallons of waste there currently. Federal officials have identified six leaking tanks, and five of the leakers contain transuranic waste, said Tom Fletcher, assistant manager of the tank farms for the Energy Department.  Dave Huizenga, head of the Energy Department’s Environmental Management program, said the transfer would not impact the safe operations of the New Mexico facility.  “This alternative, if selected for implementation in a record of decision, could enable the Department to reduce potential health and environmental risk in Washington State,” said Huizenga.

Don Hancock, of the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information opposing the transfer to New Mexico, said this is not the first time DOE has proposed bringing more waste to the plant near Carlsbad.  “This is a bad, old idea that’s been uniformly rejected on a bipartisan basis by politicians when it came up in the past, and it’s been strongly opposed by citizen groups like mine and others,” Hancock said. “It’s also clear that it’s illegal.”

Disposal operations near Carlsbad began in March 1999. Since then, more than 85,000 cubic meters of waste have been shipped to WIPP from a dozen sites around the country.  Any additional waste from Hanford would have to be analyzed to ensure it could be stored at the site because a permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department dictates what kinds of waste and the volumes that can be stored there…

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the proposal is a good start in the process of getting rid of Hanford’s waste… He also said a system is in place to treat the groundwater should contamination from the leaks reach it.  In the meantime, Inslee plans to push Congress to fully fund this proposal, saying “every single dollar of it is justified.”

South-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 177 underground tanks, which hold toxic and radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal…In a letter to Inslee, the Department of Energy estimated it will have to eliminate $92 million for its Office of River Protection, which oversees efforts to empty the tanks and build a plant to treat the waste. The cuts will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers, the agency said…. [Currently]The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on cleanup at Hanford – one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally….

Excerpts, Austin Reed Federal proposal for nuclear waste problem in Washington State, Associated Press, Mar. 8, 2013

Leaking Toxics: Hanford Nuclear Site

Hanford Site sign.  Image from wikiipedia

United States: Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee got a disturbing call Friday (Feb. 15, 2013) from Energy Secretary Steven Chu: Nuclear waste is leaking out of a tank in one of the most contaminated nuclear waste sites in the U.S.  Inslee released a statement, saying a single shell tank at Hanford Nuclear Reservation is slowly losing between 150 and 300 gallons of radioactive waste each year. All of the liquid was removed from the tank in February 1995; what’s left is toxic sludge.  According to Inslee “The leaking tank was built in the 1940’s and was stabilized in February 1995, when all pumpable liquids were removed by agreement with the State. The tank currently contains approximately 447,000 gallons of sludge, a mixture of solids and liquids with a mud-like consistency. This is the first tank which has been documented to be losing liquids since interim stabilization was completed in 2005. There are a total of 177 tanks at the Hanford site, 149 of which are single shell tanks.”

Inslee said “Fortunately, there is no immediate public health risk. The newly discovered leak may not hit the groundwater for many years, and we have a groundwater treatment system in place that provides a last defense for the river. However, the fact that this tank is one of the farthest from the river is not an excuse for delay. It is a call to act now.”

Northwest News Network reporter Anna King, who’s tracking the Hanford site, found activists who say there’s a worse problem than the leak: Now that the tank is breached, where will officials put the toxic waste? “Tom Carpenter heads the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge. He says Friday’s news highlights the fact that there’s little space to move highly radioactive waste to. So Carpenter asks, ‘If you have another leak, what do you do? You don’t have any strategy for that.’ And the Hanford Advisory Board and the state of Washington and Hanford Challenge and others have been calling upon the Department of Energy to build new tanks. That call has been met with silence.”

Hanford has been in existence since the 1940s, when the site was used to prepare plutonium for bombs….Federal officials have spent many years and billions of dollars cleaning up the reservation, including efforts to protect the nearby Columbia River. There are 177 tanks holding nuclear waste at the Hanford site; Gov. Inslee says 149 are single shelled, like the leaking one. Worse, they’ve outlived their 20-year life expectancy.

The waste mitigation work now faces a predicament with the impending sequester, the automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts that are set to take effect March 1 unless Congress reaches a different arrangement on a spending plan. Inslee says this will mean layoffs at Hanford and could even stop work there. He termed the combination of the leak and the budget cuts the “perfect radioactive storm,” according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Excerpts from KORVA COLEMAN, Nuclear Waste Seeping From Container In Hazardous Wash. State Facility, NPR, Feb. 16, 2013 and from Governor Inslee’s statement on news of Hanford leak Feb 15, 2013

Profiting from Nuclear Waste: not all are losers, Hanford, United States

Until the Japanese catastrophe of last weekend, the biggest nuclear mess in the Western world could be found at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state, where America’s government once made most of the plutonium for its nuclear weapons. More than two decades after the clean-up began, officials have yet to deal with any of the nasty stuff.

At the Hanford site, which sprawls across a sagebrush plain in the south-east of the state, none of the 53m gallons (200m litres) of highly toxic waste stored in 177 ageing and leaky underground tanks has been mopped up, even though the last reactor was shut down in 1987. That must wait until 2019, when a unique waste-treatment plant—described as the largest and most expensive nuclear clean-up project ever undertaken—will begin transforming radioactive leftovers that could poison the nearby Columbia river into still-radioactive glass logs more suitable for long-term storage. If all goes well, gunk-to-glass processing (“vitrification”) will continue until at least 2047 and cost about $74 billion, more than the annual budget of America’s Department of Education.

But all is not well…Thanks to Hanford’s sustained ability to soak up federal dollars, the great recession skipped over Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, fast-growing towns on the Columbia river that call themselves the Tri-Cities. House values soared. Job growth in the area was, amazingly, the highest in the country last year. Environmental scientists earned higher salaries there than in Seattle. Business publications include the Tri-Cities on their lists of the best places to live and work. At the Columbia Mall, where it is often difficult to find a parking space, a Hallmark shop selling greeting cards was recently replaced by a Coach shop selling $800 handbags.

People in the area are still proud of having churned out 64 tons of plutonium over 40 years for America’s tens of thousands of nukes. The material that went into Fat Man, the plutonium bomb detonated over Nagasaki, was made at Hanford, which at its peak consisted of nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium reprocessing plants. Richland High School still calls itself “the home of the bombers”. A sign in front of the school features a mushroom cloud. But the local residents also understand that cleaning up after the cold war pays even better than winning it.

Excerpts, Nuclear waste: From bombs to $800 handbags, Economist, Mar. 19, 2011, at 40