Tom Fletcher talks like a typical Hanford engineer.
Careful. Very precise. Reluctant to speculate beyond what is 100 percent known. More comfortable with the tech stuff than the political picture.
But techno-geekdom and politics are always intertwined at Hanford — and probably should be.
Fletcher — despite his goatee and spiky red hair — has been the U.S. Department of Energy's assistant manager for Hanford's 177 underground radioactive waste tanks for two years. He spent a half day Wednesday with roughly 20 reporters and camera operators touring Hanford's trouble spots and spending time with Gov. Jay Inslee. Fletcher talked engineering realities, but his bosses at the DOE did not tell him that they would also announce Wednesday that Hanford would truck a type of medium-radioactive wastes — "contact-handled transuranics" — from nine of the underground tanks to a permanent storage site in New Mexico. Consequently, a few reporters knew about the announcement before Fletcher did.
So Fletcher — prepared to discuss how Hanford expects to deal with six single-shell tanks believed to be leaking anew — found himself winging his way through numerous questions about removing wastes from nine tanks to send to New Mexico. Five of those nine tanks are also among the six new leakers, so the "whys" and "whats" were difficult to sort out.
The U.S. Department of Energy had been planning for a considerable time — way before the six new leaking tanks were announced — to send the waste from those nine contact-handled transuranic waste tanks to New Mexico. The New Mexico announcement managed to pop up about three weeks after the leaks became known, and the New Mexico plan is being touted as the solution to the leaking problem. But Fletcher had to field questions on why those tanks were not emptied before the leak showed up. All he could do was say that the plan was already in the works, and had to punt on the timing-of-the-announcement question.
Reporters followed Gov. Inslee Wednesday as he toured Hanford to get a handle on the new leaking tanks. He optimistically portrayed the New Mexico solution as a win for Washington.
But to Fletcher, Wednesday's announcement signaled a long list of unknowns and questions to be tackled. How to get the wastes out of the tanks without sluicing water into them, and inadvertently magnifying the leak problem? Where to put the wastes at Hanford after they are removed from the tanks? How to convert the peanut-butter-like gunk into something that can be stored in DOE's 2,150-foot-deep manmade cavern in New Mexico? What will the timetable be?
Inslee and Fletcher agreed that the work on those nine tanks, including five leakers, will take a few years, and that New Mexico will have to be convinced to let the tank wastes move within its borders. The sixth leaking tank holds wastes much more radioactive than transuranic materials, and will be its own separate fix-it problem.
This reintroduces Hanford into state politics — now as a problem to be faced by the rookie governor Inslee, who was the Hanford area's congressman from 1992 to 1994. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire made her bones in the late 1980s as director of the Washington Department of Ecology when she hammered out the Tri-Party Agreement with DOE. The Tri-Party Agreement is a legal pact among the state, DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to map out a binding cleanup schedule over the next few decades. The pact is routinely modified to reflect new realities at the site.
With Inslee being a hardcore enviro-geek, Hanford is a natural issue for him to focus on.
The state and EPA have constantly struggled with the DOE over numerous delays, cost increases and new problems at the site. Sometimes, the DOE is gung-ho about cleanup. Sometimes the feds want to put Hanford on a backburner, just because of the technical and budget headaches involved. Inslee joins a line of Washington governors trying to keep the feds from ducking out of their Hanford obligations.
Right now, a perfect political storm is brewing to cause more massive delays. A huge $13 billion complex is under construction to glassify the majority — but not all — of the 56 million gallons of tank wastes. But numerous engineering problems — and managerial tendencies to gloss over those troubles — threaten to delay the 2019 start-up of that complex, while also threatening major mishaps after operations begin. The DOE is flirting with the idea of have some wastes bypass a preparation plant, where the bulk of design problems have shown up, which raises additional chemical engineering questions.
Meanwhile, federal sequestration woes are expected to trim almost 10 percent of Hanford's budget, making it possible that almost half of its workers face layoffs or extensive unpaid leaves. That means more delays. And the new leaks plus the New Mexico plan add to the site's workload, with no idea of the extra costs or where the extra money will come from.
To Puget Sound, especially Seattle, Hanford is a vague exotic place in Eastern Washington — strange and far away. Think of "The Hunger Games." Seattle is the book's Capital City. Hanford and Eastern Washington are the home of Katniss Everdeen, a place that the urbanites look down on with contempt and little understanding.
Hanford rarely enters the Westside's consciousness, except when a comprehendible problem appears.
Since 2010, Hanford has floundered with whistleblowers and engineering problems at the construction of its big waste glassification complex. The problems revolve around chemical mixtures, mixing tanks and pulsejets — whose failures could screw up Hanford's cleanup to the tune of billions of dollars and years of delays. Engineering designs problems are not sexy, and the Westside's attitude toward them has been ho-hum.
But last month's announcements of six new leaking tanks has stirred up a hornet's nest of worry.
Hanford already had 67 confirmed leakers that had earlier sent more than 1 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes into the soil to join 440 billion gallons of slightly contaminated fluids dumped into the ground since 1943. Only one of the new six is confirmed as an actual leaker and the other five are suspected enough to classify them as leakers. Four of the six were already among the 67 previous leakers. Those 67 had most of their fluids pumped out years ago, but still hold massive amounts of gunk and sludge. Rainwater is the chief suspect for the new leaks. The theory is that rainwater seeps into the leaks, mingles with radioactive sludges and leaks out.
Only a few hundreds gallons of radioactive liquids are believed to have leaked anew. In the grand Hanford scheme, that is figuratively a drop in an ocean of contaminants. But it is also the canary in the coal mine. Politically, leaking tanks are something that the public's imagination can grasp — prompting about 20 journalists to show up at the site Wednesday.
Since the new leaks may have been occurring for a few years, a big question is why it took Hanford so long to detect them in already heavily-monitored tanks.
Fletcher said part of the answer is the technical difficulty of monitoring and extrapolating answers from an underground tank that humans cannot enter. The chemistry and physics of a tank's innards are constantly changing and have to be checked by remote-controlled sensors. He also hinted that changes in personnel and contractors at Hanford — a routine occurrence there — might have contributed to some data not being properly checked, with some information falling between the cracks.
This has been a common problem at Hanford for decades.
The best-known mishap because of such changes was a 1997 explosion in an old plutonium processing facility in central Hanford. A little more than 100 gallons of a chemical mixture was forgotten in a tank on the top floor of that facility. The fluid dried out enough to create a combustible mixture, and it blew up. The explosion destroyed a room, punched a hole in the roof and spewed a chemical cloud through which confused Hanford officials sent 10 unprotected workers in a misguided trip to supposed safety. It took a year to sort out that mess and blame was widespread. No agreement emerged on whether the contaminated workers' health was harmed.
On Wednesday, Inslee gave mixed signals about holding DOE's feet to the fire on the leaking tanks. He repeated his theme of no tolerance for new leaks. He met with DOE officials to extract promises for a plan to deal with the tanks.
"Eternal vigilance is needed ... to make sure Uncle Sam does not walk away for one minute [from its Hanford cleanup obligations]. ... There will be temptations for years to come to do that," Inslee said.
But Inslee also said he won't seek to add the fix-it work on the six tanks to the Tri-Party Agreement or any other legal timetable — even though most of Hanford's projects are covered by the pact or court orders that the state can seek to enforce. "Hopefully, that won't be necessary," he said.
The governor said DOE's assurance that it plans to ship the waste to New Mexico was a victory in itself.