The past three weeks have been bumpy for the agency managing the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south central Washington.
The Hanford site is still storing nuclear waste leftover from the World War II and Cold War plutonium production process. News that at least six storage tanks are leaking has triggered widespread concern over the massive federal clean-up process.
The clean-up involves emptying old and leaking storage tanks, treating contaminated groundwater, removing radioactive soil, and building a treatment plant that will bind the radioactive tank sludge in glass for safer storage, among other actions.
Northwest public radio reporter Anna King has been covering on the Hanford Site clean-up for nearly six years, and she's lived nearby in the Tri-Cities for about 10 years.
She spent several years reporting for the Tri-City Herald on the Hanford Reach National Monument, a crescent of public land that flanks the edge of the nuclear reservation. So, she knows the turf pretty well.
I talked with her about the state of the site and the news of the six leaking storage tanks. Here's our conversation:
Q: How much has changed over the years you've been covering Hanford?
A: "It's hard to quantify everything that has changed. It's a totally different site since I started covering it. When I first came out to the place they call the 300 Area, it was a crazy jumble of buildings, some that looked like mini-reactors or these domed buildings. Others were labs where they had done tests – and waste pits. They told me, 'This is all going to go away. We're going to demolish all this stuff.' It didn't really hit me until they brought me out for this big implosion deal where you heard the huge boom and the stack fell over, and you saw it fall, but you didn't hear the clap of the fall until later. I said, 'Wow, they're really doing stuff.'
There have also been these big milestones. They got all the plutonium out of the finishing plant and shipped it away from Washington, and then they could get rid of all these cyclone fences and guards they didn't need because we no longer had weapons-grade plutonium on the site.
The public interest in the site at Hanford has markedly changed. I've been on so many tours, and for a lot of them it was just me and one lonely TV reporter and one AP reporter. Just this week I was on a bus with more than 30 journalists from around the country. It's like everybody has woken up from a World War II nuclear waste clean-up nap.
A lot of the national interest started happening when people started realizing the waste treatment plant had some major technical issues and some high-level whistle-blowers were defecting and saying, 'Hey, we need to fix this before we move on.' And when parts of the plant's construction were put on hold because of those technical questions. Then Steven Chu, the secretary of the Department of Energy put together an investigation, and we have yet to hear the findings of his expert panel.
But that's not as scary to the public as leaking tanks of nuclear waste. That's when the real blitz started, and my phone has not stopped ringing."
Q: Give me a quick rundown of what's happening at the Hanford site these days. How many parts of the cleanup have been finished, and how many are left?
A. "The federal stimulus dollars greatly helped the site out here. When that money started hitting Richland and surrounding communities I was looking around thinking, 'What is going on?' People were at Anthony's Restaurant shucking oysters and buying champagne. They were out shopping, buying cars, houses were being built, condos, apartments were going up around town.
People were lining up around the block at job fairs to come work at Hanford, and a lot of clean-up did happen. Three-quarters of the clean-up work along the Columbia River is already complete. About 500 buildings out there need to be demolished and 350 have been taken down. They've dug up and disposed of 14.5 million tons of contaminated soil. Six of the nine reactors out there along the river have been cocooned so they won't leak radioactive material into the environment. They'll stay put and stay dry and stable until they decide what they're going to do with the reactor cores. They have another reactor K-East reactor they're deciding what to do with.
Meanwhile, they're demolishing the plutonium finishing plant in the 200 West Area where all the plutonium buttons were stored. They look sort of like hockey pucks. They got the weapons-grade plutonium out of the building in 2009 and trucked it out to different places. So we don't have any weapons-grade plutonium in that form at the site anymore. They'll finish demolishing that in the next couple years. It's the highest-hazard facility at Hanford because it does have this hazardous plutonium in it that could go airborne if it isn't handled properly.
That's the part of the site that's less in the news right now. The tank farms and waste treatment are under one office and account for about half of the spending. Everything else – the trenches and cribs and buildings and the reactors – are under the other Department of Energy office."
Q: What are the major accomplishments of the clean-up?
A: "They're actively cleaning up those massive tanks of waste we've been hearing so much about and building that waste treatment plant. Although parts of the plant have problems, there are parts that are nearing completion. There's a big laboratory building on site that will test the tank material batches before it comes into the plant. Some of the tanks have been cleaned out: 10 of the 149 single-shell tanks have been cleaned out so far. They've been doing one tank per year.
There are 177 underground waste tanks at Hanford. Of those, 149 are single-shell tanks that only have a single shell between the waste and the environment. When they clean those out, they dump the waste into double-shell tanks. The only problem is now we have found out that one of those double-shell tanks that was supposedly one of the newer, stronger-hulled tanks they were emptying the single-shell tanks into is now leaking internally. Although it's a slow leak, it is concerning because if one tank is leaking there could be others. That's what they're looking into now.
It's like a game of cups where you keep removing one cup and transferring the liquid into the remaining cups. But you have so much liquid and only so many cups to keep it in. If you keep eliminating cups, eventually you're going to run out of places to store the liquid."
Q: Clearly, not everything has gone that well. What are the failures?
A: "We just learned that a former contractor charged with cleaning out the waste tanks is going to have to pay $18.5 million in a settlement because its workers with that tank farm clean-up company lied about how many hours they worked and charged bogus hours. That's the largest penalty ever charged to a contractor in the history of the Hanford site. That means the work wasn't being done as well as it could have been. And it's not like they're babysitting an egg farm. This is the most hazardous stuff on earth. It's the most toxic waste site that's being cleaned up by the federal government. When you have incidences like that, I think it does shake the public trust because we're depending on them to clean up this waste and keep us safe.
That said, there's a new contractor at the tank farms now, and I think they are trying their very best to work on the tanks and get them cleaned up."
Q: I seem to remember a whole lot of controversy over the nuclear waste treatment plant. What's going on there?
A: "That's very controversial. I interviewed one of the whistleblowers on this plant a few days ago, and she made a very good point. She said we haven't turned the key yet on this plant and until we do it's not a failure it's just a work through. They're just working through issues. The only problem is the further you get in constructing this plant, the harder it is to go back and fix things. If they don't come through with solutions on some of these large items that have been issues soon I think it will become almost – I don't want to say insurmountable but – very difficult to change the design."
Q: Does that have anything to do with the latest discovery of the leaking tanks?
A: "The tanks will be providing the waste stream to the plant, that's really how the two are related. On the discovery of the leaking tanks, we're still trying to find out some basic answers. When did the contractor or DOE know this? When did they release it? In fact Sen. Wyden is asking for a government accountability investigation into those very issues. There are a lot of those people asking the same questions, and we haven't' heard much from the Department of Energy on these questions. I don't think they've shared a lot of information thus far on some of these questions; whether they know how to answer them or not we're not sure. I've been asking for interviews and information, and there are a lot of unanswered questions."
Q: Can you step me through the past three weeks as the news has rolled out that not one, but six and maybe more of these storage tanks are leaking?
A: "I think it's important to lay a little bit of groundwork first. In 2012, we learned that a double-shell tank called AY-102 was found to be leaking between its shells. In early 2013, several major investigations called into question the waste treatment plant that was intended to stabilize millions of gallons of nuclear waste. Several safety managers had blown the whistle at that point.
On (Friday) Feb. 15 in the late afternoon, we learned that a single-shelled tank, T-111, was leaking. The next Friday, Feb. 22 in the afternoon, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that a new total of six single-shelled tanks were leaking. That was after a meeting with outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu. On Feb. 25, the Department of Energy said that about 1,095 gallons of radioactive waste a year is leaking out from those six tanks. That amounts to less than 3 gallons a day.
The next day, in an interview I had, Washington Ecology asked the Department of Energy to show their math. So the state is asking DOE, 'Let's see your math on these tanks.' They want to see how many tanks had been reviewed and what information DOE is using to evaluate them and find the leakers. Gov. Inslee said he has concerns over what other tanks may be leaking, and Sen. Ron Wyden called for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
On March 5, DOE announced the sequester impacts. Another major piece of the story is that 4,800 people are going to be furloughed or laid off if the sequester goes through. That would start on April 1. And then on (Wednesday) March 6, Gov. Inslee toured the site and declared a plan to ship the waste to New Mexico."
Q: Tell me more about the plan to ship the waste to New Mexico. Is that the only solution?
A: "So the new option is can they dry out or bind up and grout some of this radioactive waste, put it in 55-gallon drums or big metal boxes half the size of an SUV and ship it down to New Mexico and store it in a big salt cave down there.
The other option would be to build new tanks to put the leaky tanks into. That would be a stopgap measure, but I've heard that even if they started that process today it would probably take five years to get tanks in the ground and ready for transfers. It takes sometimes a year to clean out a tank unless you pour a whole lot more money at the problem.
It would take a lot of money – maybe more than $100 million for just five tanks. And then there's the whole question of whether it impacts the end goal. Would it take the focus off turning this waste into glass?"
Q: As you reported, the Department of Energy said it didn't know how long these tanks have been leaking. How is that possible?
A: "What I understand is there was kind of a twofold problem. There was the problem of not analyzing the data correctly; it was like they were looking at a narrow slice of time, and they weren't looking at how years of data plots down on a graph. When they looked at years of data together they could notice these incremental changes much better. Why they weren't doing that and why that wasn't a natural thing to do I don't know, and there haven't been a lot of answers on that.
DOE says analyzing this data isn't as easy as it might seem. It's not a linear graph like the first graph you drew in grade school. The waste goes up, and down with the pressure of the weather. Waste goes up and waste goes up and down if water starts going in from the surrounding ground. It goes up and down depending on temperature. There are a lot of variables to account for in the overall tank levels.
The second part is hard to explain. When you suck waste out of the well, it's like sticking a straw down into a piece of tres leeches or Mexican milk-soaked cake and sucking. The liquid drops the most right under the straw and the more solid waste stays put. In the case of the tanks, the liquid waste takes a long time to settle back to level after they stopped pumping. So the liquid levels go up and down and the Department of Energy says there was this recent realization that they should have been looking at the liquid levels with a different base line. This was just reported to me yesterday by Tom Fletcher, head of tank farms for the Department of Energy."
Q: Isn't keeping the tanks from leaking a major priority for this clean-up?
A: "It's always been a really big priority, but the problem is so big. This waste has been here since World War II and the Cold War, and it's still here in the same tanks. It's leaked over a million gallons already, so this extra 1,000 gallons a year is a big deal – I don't want to undersell it – but when you put it in the context of a million gallons it's a much larger problem that we've got in front of us."
Q: What are the risks of these leaks? Do we have to worry about the nuclear waste seeping into the Columbia River?
A: "Nobody wants waste to hit the Columbia River. There's a ton of really valuable agriculture in the basin and communities including hugely vibrant cities like Portland downstream. Frankly, I've heard varying reports about how long it would take to reach the river and how much of it will. There's a groundwater treatment facility in the middle of the site that treats about 100 million gallons a month. It's massive. It looks like a downtown Seattle building. Officials say it's pretty much capturing all of the waste in the center of the site. But there's a lot of water down there to capture, and it hasn't been proven to me yet that they have a way to capture all of it. I don't think they're even claiming that.
There's the nasty stuff in the tank facilities, but there's also a whole lot of nasty stuff that they just poured into the ground – dumped into the sand. There were these trenches and these pits and they dumped waste in there – millions and millions of gallons of this stuff. So, although a thousand gallons a year seems like a lot of waste, we also have a lot more waste out here to worry about.
One very important point is that the Washington Department of Ecology has said as recently as (Wednesday) that there is no immediate risk to human health. They are working on the problem and taking water samples. They know where the waste is. I think that is important for people to know so they don't freak out. This is a huge problem, and we will have to figure it out, but you don't need to freak out when you go to pour a glass of water from your faucet."
Q: What questions still need to be answered?
A: "I'd say we haven't heard from the Department of Energy or Ecology on some very basic questions like: What is the plan? When did they know? When did they first suspect? When did they decide they were going to go public and when did they go public? I think that's all really important information, and the public is just crying out. We want to know more about what's in these tanks. I think those are really hard questions to answer. This is radioactive peanut-butter like sludge. It's crazy, crazy stuff. It's very hard to work on this.
I think the federal government and its contractors are working really hard on this. Workers are trying their best and working really hard out here. This cleanup is on a massive scale, I've heard people say it's like putting a man on the moon. It has not been done before. Every single tank out here is like another moon. There's different stuff in each tank. It's not like you come up with a formula and you know how to clean that stuff up. It's always changing. You're dealing with radioactive sludge. There are a lot of hoops, permits, regulations, precautions, and it's going a lot slower than many of us would like."