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Inslee worries over new tank leaks at Hanford, fed response

Workers sample ground water along the Columbia River's Hanford Reach. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Hanford's one leaking single-shell radioactive waste tank is now six leaking tanks — and possibly more.

The fix-it measure: That's a mystery for now.

But it might get revealed in the next few days.  Gov. Jay Inslee wants remedial work to start as quickly as possible.

"We need an action plan at Hanford in a variety of ways," said Inslee Friday afternoon when he announced the new leaking tanks in a phone press conference. Inslee was in Washington, D.C., and had just been briefed by Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu.

There is no immediate health danger, Inslee said.

Central Hanford has 149 single-shell tanks and 28 newer double-shell tanks holding 53 million gallons of highly radioactive fluids, sludges, gunk and crusts — all underground. There are 18 clusters of tanks — dubbed "tank farms" — seven to 14 miles from the Columbia River. Sixty-seven of the single-shell tanks have been designated leakers or suspected leakers for decades. Hanford's tanks have design lives of roughly 20 years. 

Hanford has pumped almost all the liquids from the single-shell tanks into the double-shell shells, finishing that task in 2005. The single-shell tanks still hold sludge, gunk and crusts, plus tiny pockets of fluids.

Tests were being conducted on several single-shell tanks to see whether rainwater was leaking into them through possible cracks. Those tests showed a dip in fluid levels in Tank T-111, which is in the northwest corner of central Hanford's tank farms.  Engineers extrapolated that drop into a leak of 150 gallons to 300 gallons annually for an undetermined number of years. All 177 stainless steel tanks, ranging from 500,000 gallons to 1.2 million gallons in size, are buried beneath 10 to 20 feet of soil. All the testing and pumping are conducted through narrow pipes between the tanks' interiors and the ground's surface. The tanks are roughly 100 feet to 200 feet above the aquifer. 

Inslee learned a week ago about Tank T-111. On Friday, Chu told him the number of leaking single-shell tanks is now six, and tests are being conducted to see if more are leaking. Some of the new leakers are outside of the tank cluster that includes Tank T-111 —meaning the problem is geographically wider than one small spot in Hanford. The newly discovered leaks are believed to be equal to or smaller than Tank T-111's leak, said Dieter Bohrmann, spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology.

The U.S. Department of Energy is looking at ways to remove the wastes from the leaking single-shell tanks, with Inslee saying the feds might narrow the choices in one or two weeks. He declined to list the options. "I'm not at liberty to talk about that until next week," Inslee said.

One possibility would be to dig through the soil and cut a big enough hole in the top of a single-shell tank to scoop, vacuum or sluice the radioactive gunk out of the tanks. Tank T-111 holds 447,000 gallons of sludge and crusts.

A problem with this approach would be dealing with vast amounts of radioactive dusts, vapors, and debris from the disturbed solid wastes. Another problem is what to do with the extremely radioactive wastes after the material is removed.

Or the wastes could be sluiced out through the narrow pipes in the tanks. A problem with this approach would be the forcing of a huge volume of water for weeks into a highly radioactive environment that already leaks. Another problem be would be where to put hundreds of thousands of gallons of super-radioactive fluids that would be outside of the tanks. The 28 double-shell tanks are already almost full.

The Tri-City Herald recently reported that DOE has been thinking about shipping the wastes from Tank T-111 to a huge manmade underground cavern near Carlsbad, N.M., where the feds have been storing thousands of barrels of highly radioactive junk. A problem with this approach would be the tank wastes being much more radioactive than the contaminated junk currently being sent to New Mexico. Also the volumes from Hanford's tanks would be vastly greater than what is currently trucked to Carlsbad. And the massively extra-radioactive wastes and huge volumes would have to be allowed to cross the states between Washington and New Mexico, which have agreed only to allow drastically less volumes to cross their borders.

DOE spokespeople did not return calls Friday afternoon to deal with technical questions.

Inslee said building more double-shell tanks is a consideration. But DOE told him that construction could take more than five years, which is too slow to suit the governor.

Chu also told Inslee that DOE should have detected the new leaks sooner. Errors were made, Inslee said, in monitoring the levels of the wastes in the tanks with samples being collected over too small of a time period, instead of looking at a broader range of results. "Why that was not done — perhaps human error. Perhaps the protocol was not there," Inslee said.

Hanford's master plan is to build a complex to convert the majority of the 53 million gallons into benign glass. This project was originally supposed to begin glassification in 2001 at a construction cost of $4 billion. It now has a $13 billion construction price tag with a start-up date of 2019.

The latest timetable and budget are in danger because numerous engineering design questions have surfaced in part of the complex that mixes and prepares wastes for glassification  — raising possibilities of uncontrolled radiation bursts, flaming hydrogen and leaks, plus broken pipes and mixing tanks in highly radioactive  areas where repairs could take years to complete by remote control. Whistleblowers have clashed with project managers. And outside federal agencies have echoed the whistleblowers'  criticisms. 

"It's a witches brew that we're involved in with this premixing issue," Inslee said.

Looming over all this is "sequestration": Automatic federal budgets cuts go into effect on March 1 because Democrats and Republicans cannot resolve their budget battles in Congress. That scenario could put 1,000 of Hanford's 9,000 workers on six weeks of unpaid leave this year.

"Having Hanford workers on furlough when we find additional leakers is totally unacceptable," Inslee said.

Inslee fretted about the feds siphoning money from other Hanford cleanup work to deal with the new leaking tanks situation — worried that it would give DOE an excuse not to meet other legal Hanford cleanup deadlines.

He said: “If we go down that path, cleanup will never get done. … Once the federal government is off the hook for budgetary concerns, it's 'Katie, bar the door.' "

Visit Crosscut's Hanford page for in-depth coverage of nuclear-related issues.

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