The Hanford Nuclear site in South Central Washington State is the most polluted radioactive waste dump in the country.
At the center of the Hanford reservation are hundreds of buried tanks that hold waste left over from plutonium production during World War II and the Cold War.
A multi-year, multi-billion dollar clean-up is underway. But there are problems: an accidental spill of tank waste shut down clean-up for nearly a year.
Recently, the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about how much longer the aging underground tanks can hold up. Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports in the first of a two-part series on Hanford clean-up efforts
On Hanford's central plateau you see a lot of fenced off areas with pipes jutting out of the dry, desert ground. These are the so-called tank farms.
John Britton: "This is a single shell tank farm — C-Farm."
John Britton is a spokesman for CH2M Hill, the company that has the contract to remove the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste that's in the single-shell tanks — and put it into newer, more robust double-shell ones.
John Britton: "When you're pumping out these tanks the starting goes pretty fast because the waste on top is liquid, you add some water to it, you make a slurry and you're able to pull it out. Once you get down the lower levels of the tank, the waste is very compacted and it's called a heel.
That heel can be hard as rock. Removing it is slow, difficult work that's been plagued with setbacks.
So far the liquid waste at the top has been pumped out of all of Hanford's 149 single-shell tanks and placed in the double-shell tanks. But only seven of the single-shell tanks have been completely emptied.
Removal of waste from those tanks is on track to be nearly a generation behind schedule.
|Department of Energy Spokesman Erik Olds at a Hanford Tank Farm|
Erik Olds is a spokesman for the Federal Department of Energy — which oversees Hanford clean-up.
Erik Olds: "Right now is the time in the project when we want to be developing the technologies that we need to get the waste out of the tanks. There is urgency here in getting the waste out of the single shell tanks. We are working very hard everyday to remove this waste from the single shell tanks."
But critics like Tom Carpenter with the group Hanford Challenge say the current pace of tank waste clean up at Hanford is unacceptable — mainly because the single-shell tanks weren't designed to last this long.
Tom Carpenter: "They were designed to work for ten to twenty years and it's way past that, even at this point. We know that about a third or even as many as half of those single-shell tanks have failed and have leaked about a million gallons of waste into the ground."
A million gallons — that's enough fill a ten-foot deep swimming pool the size of a football field. Much of that leaked waste resides in what's called the Vadose zone — layers of earth above the water table. But it's believed some of it has gotten into the groundwater and is heading toward the Columbia River.
Watchdog Tom Carpenter says it's scary how little is known about this leaked waste.
|Hanford Tank Farm|
Tom Carpenter: "How fast this waste is entering the groundwater, how fast that groundwater is communicating to the river, these are all open questions. There is no plan to corral this waste, to prevent it from escaping into the river, sooner or later itís going to be necessary to get a handle on this because a million gallons of Hanford tank waste hitting the river is not going to be a pretty site."
The Department of Energy responds that it is taking action to contain waste plumes before they hit the river. But it's clear the main focus at Hanford is the longer term plan for the toxic stew that remains in the underground tanks.
The plan is to turn that waste into safer glass logs. That would be done in a new waste treatment or vitrification plant now scheduled to open in 2019.
That's 11 years from now. Not soon enough for Hanford critics. They say it's time for a back-up plan in case the vitrification plant doesn't work or if the single-shell tanks continue to leak.
One idea: build more double-shell tanks. But DOE spokesman Erik Olds says that would distract from the task at hand.
Erik Olds: "Right now the focus is on getting waste treatment in place, in this case waste treatment is going to be a vitrification plant. We need at this point in the project to remain focused with all of our resources on getting that treatment capacity in place."
The Department of Energy is assembling an expert panel to better assess the condition of the single-shell tanks — and how much longer they can hold up.
Nick Ceto runs the Environmental Protection Agency's Hanford oversight office. He's fined DOE for mistakes, but says the story of Hanford clean up is not as bad as it sometimes sounds.
Nick Ceto: "You know it's been tough to watch and I understand it's been painful for the public to see how long things are taking. It's certainly been frustrating for us too cause we're anxious to get it done, but I think that despite the fits and starts there've been that we're making progress and that's real important. The public tends to hear the bad things, but there's a lot of good stuff going on too."
One example: construction of the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant has resumed after a one year stand down. We'll have that part of the story Thursday.