Hanford would like to send nuclear waste to reluctant New Mexico

Gov. Jay Inslee sees an out-of-state shipping arrangement as way to ease waste problems at troubled nuclear reservation.
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Newly leaking tanks were first discovered at Hanford's T Tank Farm.

Gov. Jay Inslee sees an out-of-state shipping arrangement as way to ease waste problems at troubled nuclear reservation.

Hanford wants to send some of its radioactive tank wastes to New Mexico. However, New Mexico might not want to accept it.

Gov. Jay Inslee painted the proposal as a solution to six new underground tanks suspecting of leaking highly radioactive wastes at a Hanford.

"We think that is the right step for all of us to pursue," Inslee said at a Wednesday press conference a Hanford.

Indeed, Hanford had already planned to send the wastes from five of those tanks to New Mexico before they were suspected of leaking. It was almost as if the solution was in place before the problem appeared.

On the other hand, the solution will be long and complicated — facing possible delays by the federal budget sequestration cuts, which will hit Hanford heavily.

"We have to look at the big picture," said Tom Fletcher, DOE assistant manager for tank farms at Hanford. "We have to look at the budget constraints."

The central part of the Hanford nuclear reservation 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" — spread out seven to 14 miles from the Columbia River. Sixty-seven of the single-shell tanks have been designated leakers or suspected leakers for decades, putting more than 1 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes into the ground. 

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.

Recently, tests were 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. Engineers extrapolated that drop into a leak of 150 gallons to 300 gallons annually for an undetermined number of years. The tanks are roughly 250 to 300 above the aquifer. 

Several days ago, five extra single-shell tanks showed signs of leaking. Four of the six tanks were already on the list of 67 suspected past leakers. So ultimately, the number of suspected leakers is now 69. 

Hanford's long-range plans included emptying roughly 3 million gallons of gunk — with the consistency of peanut butter — from nine tanks. These wastes are dubbed "contact-handled transuranic wastes," which translates to sludges whose radioactivity is between high-level and low-level, and can be handled by people in protective suits. Lots of Hanford's wastes can be handled only by remote control. Five of the six leaking single-shell tanks are among those nine. The sixth tank holds high-level radioactive wastes.

The Department of Energy has a 2,150-foot-deep manmade cavern near Carlsbad, N.M, which accepts radioactive junk in barrels -- at the transuranic contamination levels -- for permanent storage. It is called the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or "WIPP."

DOE announced Wednesday it will put its long-standing plan regarding shipping waste to New Mexico into action for nine tanks. However, the details are up in the air.

Hanford does not yet know how it will remove the wastes from those nine tanks — including the five new leakers. It also does not know whether it will have to build a facility to convert the sludges into cement-like grout or something pebble-like that can be stored in the WIPP. It does not know whether the removed wastes will be stored in 55-gallon barrels or huge tubs while Hanford. It has no cost estimates. It does not have a deadline for nailing down the answers to those questions.

Fletcher said doing the preparation work and removing the wastes will take a few years. And a different plan is needed to deal with the sixth new leaking tank, which holds high-level radioactive wastes, he said.

The tanks are beneath 10 to 20 feet of soil, connected to the outside world by narrow pipes. A variety of methods are being considered to pump wastes out of the tanks. Holes might be cut into the tops of the tanks, but that decision is not near. One possibility is a device that has suction at one end and upward spurting water breaking up and pushing the material to the surface — without the water entering the tank.

The New Mexico and Washington governments will have to work out new permits to put this plan into motion. However, New Mexico has been reluctant in the past to accept new types of radioactive wastes for WIPP. As of Wednesday, Inslee had not talked to New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez about the proposal.

Meanwhile, sequestration — the arbitrary federal budget cuts that went into effect last Friday because Congress was deadlocked on budget talks— translates to $182 million worth of cuts in Hanford's roughly $2 billion annual budget. Up to 4,800 of the sites roughly 10,000 workers face possible layoffs or furloughs — unpaid leaves. The earliest that could occur is April 1. No information is available on the ratio of furloughs to layoffs.

"It will slow down this process. It makes it more expensive to the taxpayers in the long run," Inslee said.

DOE will have to juggle this tank work with its troubled waste glassification complex.

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.

Another wrinkle is Hanford's double-shell tanks are almost full, and pressure is on to build more.

Inslee is skittish about DOE playing off its various troubles against the state to delay Hanford's cleanup so work falls behind set by the Tri-Party Agreement, the legal contract by which the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforce DOE's cleanup obligations. "Eternal vigilance is needed.... to make sure Uncle Sam does not walk away for one minute. .... There will be temptations for years to come to do that," Inslee said.

But Inslee also said he won't push to put the fix-it work on the six newly discovered leaking tanks into a legally bindng timetable. "Hopefully, that won't be necessary. ... We already won that battle today (with DOE's assurance it will tackle the problem)," Inslee said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8