Environment | Oregon

Hanford’s Old Pipes Vs. An Old City’s Sewer System

OPB | May 9, 2011 1:50 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:05 a.m. | Richland, WA

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A recent report by a federal watchdog agency says pipes meant to carry radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation could leak, spray or even explode.

The pipes underground at the nuclear site near Richland, Washington, are a mix of old and new. That tangle of pipes and valves is a little like your city’s sewer system.

Meet the City of Richland’s sewage maintenance team.

Vern McGraw: “My name’s Vern McGraw.”

He and his crew keep sewage moving through an aging underground system of concrete and steel pipes.

Vern McGraw: “They are in horrible condition, ‘cause they’re 50, 60 years old….”

I’m out on the streets with McGraw’s craftsman Alan Hilmes. He says any pipe with sludge running through it is going to corrode.

Alan Hilmes: “As the pipes get older they are just going to require more maintenance or a replacement or a rehabilitation.”

Hilmes says the city of Richland has an aggressive maintenance program. But even with the best of intentions, things can back up, leak or goosh out onto the street. He says those types of emergencies happen around the city about 300 times a year.

Not too far from here Hanford has decades-old pipes too. But they’re built to move 53 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge. It’s the left overs from extracting plutonium. Eventually the pipes will lead across the desert to a massive waste treatment plant as described in this promotional video.

But the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said in its report that Hanford doesn’t know enough about those pipes to get the job done.

Peter Winokur chairs that federal agency. He says Hanford managers needs to monitor …

Peter Winokur: “… the present state of the piping as well as to be able to understand how it will perform over time.”

Winokur’s most recent report raises alarms that those pipes might corrode, leak or even explode. The nuclear safety board documented in detail its worries about how Hanford currently plans to use those piping systems until 2048, 20 years longer than expected.

That surprised even Tom Carpenter who runs the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge.

Tom Carpenter: “This board has been around for over 25 years. And I’ve never seen correspondence and reports like this before.”

But it’s not that easy to fix Hanford’s matrix of pipes. That’s according to Cheryl Whalen with Washington’s Department of Ecology.

Cheryl Whalen: “The underground piping was used to transfer high level waste, so they’re highly contaminated. They’re also running through tank farms where it’s very hard to get heavy equipment in.”
Which means the work would need to be done with handheld shovels not backhoes. That’s not only dangerous, it’s expensive. The U.S. Department of Energy, which manages Hanford, has released a short statement saying that it will respond to the board’s concerns in the next three months.

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