Review: Hanford tank leak could have been found sooner

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJuly 20, 2013 

The discovery of a Hanford tank leak could have been made sooner, but overall Department of Energy oversight of Hanford's tank farm contractor is effective and consistent with federal requirements, according to a new report.

The report found no significant deficiencies in overall management of Washington River Protection Solutions, but it did make some suggestions for improvement.

The report was prepared at the request of Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, which has oversight of tank farm contractor Washington River Protection Solutions. He requested it in April after underground tanks holding radioactive waste had been discovered to be leaking, according to DOE.

The team preparing the report was selected and led by Mark Brown, the DOE assistant manager for nuclear and safety performance at the Idaho Cleanup Project.

The discovery that DOE's oldest double-shell tank, Tank AY-102, had a leak from its interior shell last fall showed that the execution of Hanford's Double-Shell Tank Integrity Program Plan was flawed, the report said.

The leak was detected when a video camera was lowered down a riser that had not previously been used for visual inspections.

Narrow risers extend from aboveground into the space between the shells of the underground tank.

The cause of the leak most likely was flaws in the construction of the tank in the late '60s, but "the leakage could have been identified earlier by monitoring from more widespread access points," the report said.

Washington River Protection Solutions will alter how it carries out its tank integrity plan, the report said.

The report did not address more recent concerns that the leak in Tank AY-102 may also have breached the outer shell.

DOE said Friday that testing since the concern was raised a month ago has been inconclusive.

Hanford also has six single-shell tanks believed to be leaking waste into the ground, officials discovered in February.

Just one, Tank T-111, has definitively been confirmed to be leaking and additional inspections for the other tanks are a high priority, according to the report.

When monitoring first indicated changes in Tank T-111, Washington River Protection Solutions increased monitoring and DOE Hanford officials conducted an extensive independent review of data, leading to the conclusion that the tank most likely was leaking, the report said. That has since been confirmed by video inspections within the tank.

DOE Hanford officials should also have questioned established oversight activities and determined if changes were needed, the report said. Changing how assessments are scheduled should improve the process in the future, the report said.

The report also raised concerns about maintenance in the tank farms -- groups of underground tanks holding radioactive waste -- which date to as early as World War II.

DOE has many incentives that Washington River Protection Solutions can earn for performing different activities well, but there is limited, if any, incentive pay tied to maintenance of the tank farms to encourage improved performance, the report said.

The contractor is struggling with a backlog of maintenance to prevent and correct problems with aging infrastructure, the report said.

In addition, no DOE official now is assigned oversight responsibility for the tank farm maintenance program.

Overall, the review team liked what it saw of DOE management of the tank farm contractor, however.

Oversight "is effective, well-planned and timely," the report said. "Performance of the contractor is not only monitored and measured through the use of performance indicators, but action is taken to remediate degraded or poor performance."

The DOE Office of River Protection has a comprehensive system to report and resolve issues.

It prioritizes issues, communicates them to the contractor and has protocols to resolve them, the report said.

Expectations for DOE oversight officials to send time on site at the tank farms is a strength, the report said, although management needs to make sure the expectation is rigorously followed.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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