Feds will slash Hanford cleanup workers

Plans call for use of this type of tank to receive melted wastes at Hanford's glassification complex. Credit: John Stang

Almost  half of Hanford's employees could be laid off or furloughed because of federal sequestration cut, which would jeopardize timetables to deal with new leaking tanks and to build a complex to glassifying highly radioactive wastes, according to a letter received by Gov. Jay Inslee today.

The earliest that any layoffs or furloughs would of occur is April 1, according to the March 5 letter to Inslee from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman. Up to 4,800 of Hanford's roughly 10,000 workers could be affected by those potential layoffs or furloughs. Furloughs are unpaid leaves or vacations. The letter did not detail the extents of the furloughs versus layoffs.

"While these reductions are unfortunate and will be damaging, the Department (of Energy) is doing everything within its power to protect our mission to the greatest extent possible," Poneman wrote.

DOE will lose $1.9 billion nationwide due to the sequestration — a total of $85 million in federal government automatic budget cuts that went into effect last Friday because Congress could not resolve a budget deadlock. That will translate to a $182 million budget cut to Hanford. Hanford's annual cleanup budget usually is in the neighborhood of $2 billion.

Hanford's operations are divided into two sections. One is the Office of River Protection, which is in charge of dealing with 53 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes in 177 huge underground tanks, plus the construction of a $13 billion plant to begin glassifying the majority of those wastes starting in 2019.The other section is DOE’s Richland office, which is in charge of everything else at Hanford.

Poneman's letter said the tank waste section will lose roughly $92 million with roughly 2,800 workers affected. The Richland office will lose $72 million with up with roughly 1,900 workers affected. Adding the two sections together almost, but not quite, equals the total $182 million shortfall and roughly 4,800 workers affected .Poneman's letter did not address the slight discrepancy in the numbers.

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. More than 1 million gallons of liquid wastes leaked from the single-shell tanks before the liquids were pumped to the double-shell double tanks.

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 three weeks ago about Tank T-111. A week-and-a-half ago, he learned that 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.

Meanwhile, Hanford's overall master plan has been 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.

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

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