DOE plans assessment of Hanford toxic waste shipment

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldAugust 16, 2013 

The Department of Energy plans an assessment of shipments of radioactive waste within short distances of the Hanford nuclear reservation after safety concerns were raised.

The Washington State Department of Ecology raised some initial issues in a report on an ongoing inspection in July obtained by Hanford Challenge. However, the Department of Ecology does not have regulatory authority over waste shipments and only can consider issues, not require changes. It has not issued a final inspection report.

"I'm pretty confident we are doing shipping safely," said Matt McCormick, manager of the Department of Energy Hanford Richland Operations Office. The assessment is being done "in the spirit of continuous improvement" and to make sure the shipments comply with all regulations, he said.

The Department of Energy follows U.S. Department of Transportation regulations for Hanford waste shipments that are sent long distances, such as to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant national repository in New Mexico.

Those shipments rely on the waste containers to prevent the spread of radioactive contamination and protect the public in case of an accident. Shipments generally do not have escort cars and travel at normal highway speed.

But the Department of Energy also can choose to make shipments by a method called "out of commerce" that relies on road closures regulated by federal, state and local governments and DOE standards for safe containment of the waste and the prevention of collisions.

The assessment planned by DOE will focus on those shipments.

It's the method picked for shipments of waste to Perma-Fix Northwest, which is just off the nuclear reservation. Waste such as debris with radioactive contamination and glove boxes removed from the Plutonium Finishing Plant are shipped to the Richland company for work that may include reducing the size of equipment, grouting the waste within containers or repackaging it for disposal at Hanford or elsewhere.

The shipments travel about 12 miles on roads open to the public, but most of the route is on the Hanford nuclear reservation on the road leading to the Wye Barricade, a secure entrance to the site. Less than a mile of the route to Perma-Fix on Battelle Boulevard in north Richland is off the nuclear reservation and is in a sparsely developed industrial area.

DOE has made about 1,000 shipments to Perma-Fix using "out of commerce" regulations, according to DOE.

There has not been an accident or a release of radioactive material during those shipments, said DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree.

The waste in the shipments has double packaging, but the most protective container used is a Type A container for radioactive material. Some of the shipments with higher levels of radiation would be required to have more protective Type B containers if they were shipped under U.S. Department of Transportation "in commerce" standards.

Type B containers must meet more stringent Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements, such as surviving a fire of 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes.

However, the "out of commerce" shipments have the additional protection of a rolling road closure not used for "in commerce" shipments, according to DOE.

The shipments to Perma-Fix travel under speed limits set at 10 to 35 mph, depending on the individual load.

They are escorted by four vehicles -- two in front and two in back -- that block traffic at intersections, according to DOE. If there should be an accident or a mishap, such as a flat tire, the escort vehicle staff would keep the public away from the shipment.

However, traffic coming in the opposite direction on two lanes of Route 4 South, the road to the Wye Barricade, is not blocked by the rolling road closure, which is part of the concern raised in the Department of Ecology inspection.

For Perma-Fix shipments, the only ones in recent DOE memory done under out-of-commerce regulations, the city of Richland issues a road closure permit.

It's the same permit issued for other road closures, including for parades and block parties, but that does not effect the safety of the shipments, because the safety requirements are set by federal regulation, according to DOE.

The assessment planned by DOE will review how the road closure operations are conducted in accordance with federal, state and local regulations and codes. It will consider the security of the shipments, how safety documentation add-resses risks and what controls are in place to protect the public from a release of radioactive material.

It also will look at whether notifications are properly made to local governments before shipments, and will look at emergency response capabilities, including area hospitals and mutual aid agreements with the state of Washington and Benton County.

The assessment team will include officials from DOE headquarters, other DOE sites that make similar shipments, Perma-Fix and the Richland Police Department. A retired Washington State Patrol officer also will be on the team. A report should be ready in late fall.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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