Nadia Prupis / Common Dreams & Alexander Nazaryan / Newsweek & – 2016-05-05 00:41:24
New Leak at Hanford Nuclear Waste Site is ‘Catastrophic,’ Worker Warns
‘This is probably the biggest event ever to happen in tank farm history’
Nadia Prupis / Common Dreams
(April 19, 2016) — A leak at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state has prompted warnings of “catastrophic” consequences, as workers attempt to clean up more than eight inches of toxic waste from one of 28 underground tanks holding radioactive materials leftover from plutonium production.
Alarms on the site began sounding on Sunday, leading workers to discover 8.4 inches of toxic waste in between the inner and outer walls of tank AY-102, which has been slowly leaking since 2011 but has never accumulated that amount of waste before.
A former tank farm worker told local media that despite statements from the US Department of Energy (DOE) that the spill does not pose a threat to public health, it should be considered a major problem.
“This is catastrophic,” the worker, Mike Geffre, who first discovered that the tank was failing in 2011, told King-TV on Monday. “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].”
DOE said Monday said the rupture was an “anticipated” result of ongoing efforts to fully decommission the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation.
However, the new leak at the site poses several problems, King-TV reporter Susannah Frame writes:
The outer shell of AY-102 [the tank] does not have the exhaust or filtration system needed to keep the dangerous gases created by the waste in check. Workers have been ordered to wear full respiratory safety gear in the area, but the risk remains.
“The hazards to workers just went up by a factor of 10,” said Geffre. In addition, the breakdown calls into question the viability of three other double-shell tanks at Hanford that have the exact design of AY-102.
Environmental groups also issued words of caution. Columbia Riverkeepers, an Oregon-based advocacy organization, said in a statement that the leak is “another reminder of the cost of nuclear waste, and the unexpected outcomes of handling radioactive material.”
The AY-102 tank “holds some of the most dangerous nuclear waste on Earth,” said the group’s executive director Brett VandenHeuvel. “These tanks were not designed to hold waste for decades. It’s past time to get the waste out of the unsafe tanks.”
In 2012 and 2013, leaks were reported at seven of Hanford’s 177 tanks, 149 of which are single-shelled.
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Nuclear Waste Leaking at ‘American Fukushima’ in Northwest
Alexander Nazaryan / Newsweek
(May 3, 2016) — The Hanford Nuclear Reservation sits on the plains of eastern Washington, where the state meets Oregon and Idaho. This is open country through which cars pass quickly on the way to the Pacific coast or, conversely, deeper into the heartland.
The site is nearly 600 square miles in area and has been largely closed to the public for the past 70 years. Late last year, though, it became part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which will allow visitors to tour B Reactor, where plutonium for one of the two atomic weapons dropped on Japan in World War II was produced.
This was a hopeful turn for a place that, for four decades, stocked the American nuclear arsenal. A total of nine reactors operated at Hanford, and though they are now decommissioned, the reactors have left behind 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. That a place so tainted with radioactive material could become parkland was a positive sign.
Not quite, it seems, with recent reports indicating new breaches in the tanks holding the nuclear waste. Workers on the site have been sickened too, suggesting that the rush to designate Hanford as a park may have been premature.
The 177 underground tanks were never a permanent solution, and the government has hired private contractors to build a plant that will solidify the waste and prepare it for permanent safe storage.
The project will cost an astonishing $110 billion, according to estimates, making it what many believe to be the most expensive, and extensive, environmental remediation project in the world. Completion is about five decades away.
When I visited Hanford in 2013, construction of the Waste Treatment Plant — which will pump nuclear sludge out of the tanks and turn them into a hardened, glasslike substance — was slow and rife with technical challenges. Whistleblowers, meanwhile, were alleging that private contractors had neglected safety and engineering concerns in their rush to complete the job. Otherwise sober observers likened the place to a nuclear tinderbox. “America’s Fukushima?” asked the resulting Newsweek cover story.
The question remains disturbingly open. Of the 28 newer double-shelled tanks, AY-102 was already known to be leaking toxic sludge into the soil. Now a second double-shelled tank, AY-101, is believed to be leaking as well, according to a report by Seattle news station KING 5. A contractor’s memo obtained by the station acknowledges “the possibility that the material is from tank waste that has escaped from the primary shell of the double-shell tank.”
That material likely includes radioactive isotopes like cesium-137 and strontium-90, though nobody really knows the exact composition of the sludge in each tank. But everyone is certain that their escape bodes poorly for the thousands who live and work in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state.
Those worries were further compounded late last week when 11 workers at Hanford became ill due to vapors emanating from AY-102, the leaking double-shelled tank.
The ill workers and revelations about the second leaking tank are likely to dampen enthusiasm about Hanford’s unlikely return to nature. In the wake of the most recent revelations, a nuclear-energy historian warned on the liberal site CounterPunch that “at Hanford we have the threat of a radiological explosion or terrorist act that could release volumes more radiation than was released by Fukushima . . . and spread radiation across the West Coast and mountain west.”
This is an unwelcome development for one of the nation’s newest national parks. Maybe the federal government was cavalier in this designation: It’s hard to enjoy nature when the possibility of man-made disaster looms.
Six More Workers Sickened by Radioactive Fumes at Hanford Nuclear Site
(May 4, 2016) — Six more workers at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state were taken to a medical clinic for exposure to radioactive fumes, bringing the total number of affected workers to 26. Fumes have reportedly been leaking from waste tanks since last week.
The six workers were outside the tank farms. Three reported smelling suspicious odors, and three others requested medical evaluations because of odors last week, according to The Tri-City Herald.
The Hanford nuclear site holds radioactive waste stored in underground tanks that is left over from the past processing of plutonium used in the nation’s nuclear weapons program, beginning with the Manhattan Project.
The vapors are associated with the chemical portion of the waste. The latest incident of sickness brings the total number of employees evaluated for possible exposure to chemical vapors to 26 since Thursday. All 26 have returned to work, but are concerned about long-term health problems.
The Hanford site is on the Columbia River in East Washington. It stores 56 million gallons of radioactive chemicals, two thirds of which is radioactive waste stored in tanks built between the 1940s and 1970s.
“They [tanks] were not supposed to last more than ten to twenty years, twenty years was a dream in the first place,” State Representative Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle) told RT. “Some of them didn’t last twenty years and we had a small explosion in the 1950s where hot waste boiled, created a steam explosion under the tank, and we were lucky we didn’t have half of Eastern Washington permanently evacuated.”
Last month, Hanford officials announced that several thousand gallons of radioactive waste had leaked from the site’s primary tank.
“During routine filter inspections, higher than normal readings for contamination were found on filter paper installed on a continuous air monitor for Hanford’s double-shell tank AY-101 annulus. While these readings were higher than normal, they were well below the alarm level,” Hanford Contractors and Energy said, according to Washington River Protection Solutions.
The odors are suspected to have come from the transfer of that waste. Transfer work has stopped while new equipment is being installed.
“It is an environmental disaster,” ecologist Tom Carpenter told RT. “Hanford created the largest inventory of high level nuclear waste in the nation, and unhappily that waste is currently stored in leaking underground nuclear waste tanks,” Carpenter said. “Now we are starting to see those failing. It is an environmental disaster. At some point the river becomes so contaminated that you can use the river.”
According to a statement released on Tuesday evening, Washington’s attorney general is exploring pursuing further legal options to keep workers safe from chemical vapors.
“The events of the past several days are a disturbing illustration of why I filed a lawsuit against the federal government to protect Washingtonian who work at Hanford,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Ferguson filed a lawsuit seeking better chemical vapor protection for workers against the Department of Energy and its Hanford tank farm contractor last September.
“What’s happening at Hanford isn’t right, and I am exploring further legal options to keep our workers safe,” he said.
Ferguson said that he had called on President Barack Obama and US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to get personally involved in the case.
2014 Leak In Massive Hanford Nuclear Waste Tank Getting Worse
RICHLAND, Wash. (March 8, 2014) — Workers have found more waste leaking between the walls of a nuclear storage tank on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
The waste was found in a new place between the walls of one of the 28 double shell tanks at the site. The US Dept. of Energy, which owns Hanford, says the waste is covering an area of 7 feet by 21 inches.
The double shell tanks were built to be the most robust tanks at Hanford. They were constructed with the intent to be able to safely store the dangerous wastes until the technology to permanently dispose of the liquids is developed.
A leak in a double shell tank is seen as one of the biggest setbacks to the cleanup program at Hanford in the last decade.
Feds ‘Consistently in Denial’ at Hanford
Thousands of documents obtained by KING 5 reveal a lack of action and a denial of the serious nature of a spill of nuclear waste by at the Hanford nuclear facility in eastern Washington.
The records were generated by the Washington State Department of Ecology during its investigation of the spill, which occurred in February 2012 in the central region of the 586-square-mile Hanford site. Employees of the government contractor CH2M Hill were inspecting large metal boxes stored in the open air on a bed of gravel when they discovered radioactive liquid beside one of the boxes.
The container, with obvious signs of rust and deterioration, was thought to be storing only solid materials such as piping, gloves and masks discarded during the decades of plutonium production at Hanford.
Lawmaker: State a ‘Paper Tiger’ at Hanford
Top officials at the Washington State Department of Ecology ignored advice from their own staff last month when they imposed a small fine on the federal government and a major contractor over the 2012 release of radioactive materials at the Hanford Site.
In a review of more than 2,000 documents surrounding the case, the KING 5 Investigators found that Ecology officials were pressed by their inspectors to impose a major fine against the US Department of Energy and CH2M Hill, a company heavily involved in the cleanup of the former plutonium production site. The documents were originally obtained through a request for public records by the non-profit group Hanford Challenge.
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