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

Memos show state Ecology officials are frustrated with federal Energy Department denials and delays on providing information.

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.

The state countered that this incident involves mixed wastes — liquid chemical intermingled with radioactive materials, Graber wrote. The fact that 36 gallons of radioactive liquids was to have leaked out of the concrete container apparently bolsters the state's stance.

"The denial of access to records caused Ecology delays in completing the release investigation. ... It is unacceptable to withhold information from Ecology that is part of the operating records and is required to be available on site during inspections," Graber wrote in a follow-up memo on July 3 of this year. He added that the Energy Department and CH2M Hill "must remedy this problem so that future inspections are not hindered by records that either unavailable because they are not at the site, or withheld because personnel are uncertain about operating record requirements," .

The July 3 memo indicated the state is considering filing violation notices against the U.S. Department of Energy and CH2M Hill regarding the delays in reporting the leak, not knowing what is in the container, not checking what is in the container, being too slow in tackling the leak with drip pans and a tarp cover, and other related problems. 

Another leakage discovery took place on April 27, 2011 at central Hanford's Waste Receiving and Processing Facility, or WRAP. WRAP is a small complex in which x-ray-like images are taken of the interiors of barrels, the barrels are double-checked to see if they hold fluids, are sometimes inserted within bigger barrels if needed, and then shipped for burial usually elsewhere at Hanford.

On April 27, 2011, a barrel in a WRAP storage building was found to have leaked. Over the next few days, it was determined that one-fifth to one-third of a quart of a highly acidic fluid had leaked, said an Oct. 2, 2012 memo by Kathleen Conaway, another Ecology Department nuclear waste inspector. Later, investigators determined that several incompatible nonradioactive chemicals were mixed in the barrel, causing a pinhole leak in the drum. 

Conaway's memo listed a long string of communications back and forth between the federal Energy Department and the state, which asked numerous questions. Several days and sometimes even a few weeks occurred between questions and responses and clarifications. At times, the Energy Department asked the state why it was asking specific questions, including some about the storage building's roof. Even though rain is scarce at Hanford, a standard worry on the site is about rainwater mingling with wastes to eventually flow into the ground. These exchanges between Energy and the state lasted more than a year.

On Sept. 12, 2012, Ecology set up a Sept. 17 appointment with Energy Department and CH2M Hill officials to go to central Hanford's to review the on-site records that the state was interested in. The state inspectors met with one Energy and three CH2M Hill representatives at the WRAP facility's parking lot, Conaway's memo said. The Hanford officials told the state inspectors that the records were in an administrative building down the street. Conaway asked to go inside the storage building where the leak occurred to take photos.

Federal Energy Deparment official Mike Collins "immediately said 'NO, you can't do that because it is not on your list" of items to discuss that day with the department and CH2M Hill, Conaway wrote. Conaway added that the other inspector also asked a little later whether photos could be taken of the interior of the WRAP storage building. Collins told her that no key was available to open them, and that the small group did not have a properly trained operator, who was required to enter the storage building. He also said all the barrels had been moved from the WRAP facility to another central Hanford storage site. The Energy Department later provided its own photos of the building's interior to the state Ecology Department.

Conaway wrote that corrective measures need to be taken at the WRAP facility. But her Oct. 2, 2012 memo did not recommend specific citations for violation notices.


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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