Hanford nuclear site, about half the size of Rhode Island, was built during World War II by DuPont as an experimental large-scale plutonium production reactor. GE took over after the war and then closed down most of the reactors within the next two decades. For almost 30 years, the U.S. government has tried to clean up the radioactive mess with little success. With two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume, the site remains the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation and has cost $2 billion a year for cleanup, one-third of fed’s national budget for this purpose in the entire country. Throughout the almost three decades of planned cleanup, the site continues to leak.
The most recent disaster was last Sunday when one of the 28 underground tanks holding radioactive materials leaked over eight inches of toxic waste between its inner and outer walls. That tank has been leaking for the past five years but never to that extent. Washington state’s Department of Ecology and the U.S. Department of Energy said that it wasn’t any problem, but former worker Mike Geffre, who first found that the tank was failing in 2011, disagrees.
“This is catastrophic. This is probably the biggest event ever to happen in tank farm history. The double shell tanks were supposed to be the savior of all saviors [to hold waste safely from people and the environment].”
The 2011 leak wasn’t acknowledged or announced for at least a year, and this time the government is saying that the rupture is “anticipated.” But the tank’s outer shell lacks an exhaust or filtration system to keep dangerous gases from polluting the air, and workers are ordered to wear full respiratory safety gear. The hazards “went up by a factor of 10,” according to Geffre, and employees weren’t warned that something like this might happen. Geffre said the government waited for a year to act on his warnings in 2011. Talking about the new leaks, he said, “It’s an example of a culture at Hanford of ‘We don’t have problems here. We’re doing just fine.’ Which is a total lie.”
No one knows if the three other double-shell tanks with the same design as the leaking tank are having the same problem with widening cracks—or if the government would reveal the problem because of the way that they hide the information five years ago. Columbia Riverkeepers, an Oregon-based advocacy organization, pointed out that the tanks, built almost 80 years ago weren’t made to hold waste for decades. The leaking tank is just one of 28 double-shell tanks. Hanford has a total of 177 underground tanks.
The original cracks in the compromised tank may have been enlarged by attempts to pump waste out of it. Pumping began three weeks ago after Washington state petitioned the federal government to do something about the damaged structure. Crews were removing waste from the tank because mixed radioactive and chemical waste had previously leaked into the secondary containment area. It’s possible that the pressure change has “blown out” the weakened wall, putting waste even closer to the nearby Columbia River.
In the same statement that the DOE released about “no indications that waste has reached the environment and … no threat to the public at this time,” the agency admitted that the tank is “too dangerous” to send workers to inspect the full scope of the damage. Further doubt may be generated by the lawsuit that workers filed earlier against the government to seek protection for workers at the Hanford site “from exposure to toxic vapors released from Hanford’s high-level nuclear waste tanks.” The lawsuit states poor management has caused some employees to suffer brain damage, nervous system disorders, and lung diseases resulting from the poor management of the facility. Problems continue, according to the lawsuit because “[officials] don’t have the monitoring equipment in place, they don’t have enough people to do the monitoring, and worst of all, Hanford officials have made it repeatedly clear that they don’t think there is a problem.”
Nuclear engineer Walter Tamasaitis worked for URS Corp for 44 years but was reassigned to a basement office in 2009 after he warned people about the safety design issues at Hanford. Federal investigators supported his concerns, but he was fired in 2013. It was a warning to anyone else who might complain about how the cleanup at Hanford was operated. Hanford has 8,000 workers.
The government had planned a waste treatment plant at Hanford by 2022, but late last year, they pushed its startup to 2039. The plan was to change 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into solid glass. In 2014, a review showed that the partially built plant had 362 “significant design vulnerabilities,” including seals that could melt and ventilation systems that might not be able to contain radioactive gases. The original plan was to turn out six metric tons of vitrified high-level waste and 30 tons of vitrified low-level waste. At that rate, the job would be finished by 2059. Revised plans pushed the completion date to nearly the end of the 21st century. DOE proposed removing waste from single-shell tanks through 2024 and building new double-wall tanks—that are now failing.
The DOE may have expected the disaster, but removal work is on hold until the situation is evaluated and a plan created to recover the leaked material. The Hanford site, located on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, is only 230 miles for Portland (OR), but the media has reported nothing about the leaks. The Portland area has a population of almost 2.4 million people, almost 60 percent of Oregon’s population of 3.97 million.
The Oregonian, once the largest newspaper in the state of Oregon, has nothing to say about the current dangers at Hanford.