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Fed-up state officials may cite Hanford for miscues on radioactive leaks

Memos show state Ecology officials are frustrated with federal Energy Department denials and delays on providing information.
A sign on equipment at Hanford's long-closed B Reactor, where plutonium was produced for early atomic bombs. A 'scram' referred to an emergency shutdown of the reactor.

A sign on equipment at Hanford's long-closed B Reactor, where plutonium was produced for early atomic bombs. A 'scram' referred to an emergency shutdown of the reactor. Shane Lin/Flickr

A sign warns visitors of restrictions at Hanford's Energy Department site.

A sign warns visitors of restrictions at Hanford's Energy Department site. Tony Case/Flickr

Washington state is considering citing the Hanford nuclear reservation for mishandling containers of radioactive wastes in 2012.

Washington Department of Ecology investigators also became frustrated over Hanford officials for not providing requested information for these investigations, or being slow to provide it.

A June 28, 2013 internal Ecology memo listed 14 possible violations that might apply to Hanford's sluggish response to a leaking container more than 16 months ago. That memo said that the state asked the U.S. Department of Energy five times from February to May 2012 for documents pertaining to the leak. "DOE [the Department of Energy] denied Ecology access to (the appropriate) operating records on those dates," said the June 28 memo by Ecology Department nuclear waste inspector Kerry Graber.

In another incident, state Ecology gave the federal Department of Energy five days notice in September 2012 that it wanted to inspect the site and records pertaining to a barrel leaking acidic fluids in a storage building in April  2011. Despite the five days' advance notice, the federal Energy Department did not have a key or the appropriate employee available to enter the building. 

The problems with the waste barrels are not related to Hanford's 177 huge underground tanks that hold 53 million gallons of highly radioactive liquids and sludges. The recent discovery of a leak from one of the doube-shell underground tanks angered Gov. Jay Inslee and spurred worries about more tanks leaking at the site.

The 586-square-mile reservation in Eastern Washington is where the United States set up massive reactors and chemical processing plants during World War II to create plutonium for the nation's early atomic bombs, and continued to do so until 1987. Today, it's the Western Hemisphere's most radiologically and chemically contaminated site with huge underground tanks full of radioactive sludge, 180 square miles of contaminated ground water, nine defunct reactors, and countless barrels and containers of various types of contaminated objects and fluids. 

The Ecology Department addresses barrels, boxes and containers holding junk and fluids of various radiological and chemical potencies that are stored indoors and outdoors at central Hanford. The long-range plan is to safely store the barrels, examine their contents and eventually ship the dry, highly radioactive junk in barrels to a huge manmade cavern at Carlsbad, New Mexico. The other wastes are being buried in central Hanford. 

Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, a long-time Hanford watchdog organization, obtained some memos from state under the Freedom of Information Act. It made the documents public on Tuesday.

The federal Department of Energy declined any immediate comment, saying it does not publicly discuss pending citations. The Ecology Department declined to comment, also referring to the ongoing decision making. "Any release of hazardous materials to the environment concerns Ecology, and we want to ensure that non-compliant dangerous waste practices aren't repeated," said a written statement from the Ecology Department.

In December 2011, workers for Hanford contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. discovered a leak from a concrete box-like container in a trench in central Hanford. But the federal Energy Department did not tell the state Ecology Department about the leak until Feb. 7, 2012.  On Feb. 7, Feb. 8, Feb. 21, April 19 and May 23, 2012, the state asked for records for handling the containers and was denied, the Ecology memo said. The container's size is not noted in the documents.

At a March 7, 2012 meeting, federal Energy officials would not provide the state access to some workers. One reason the Energy officials gave at the time was that the department did not know what specifically the state was investigating, so it did not want to provide the wrong workers, according to an Oct. 2, 2012 memo by Ecology's Graber to the heads of  Energy's Richland office and CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation. Another Energy Department reason was that the state has regulatory authority only over "mixed wastes," which are a combination of non-radioactive chemical and radioactive wastes. Energy contended the state does not have regulatory over purely dry radioactive wastes, which is a federal regulatory responsibility.


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