Inslee discusses Hanford tank waste

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 26, 2013 

At least one underground tank in the Hanford T Tank Farm is believed to be leaking waste into the ground.

HERALD FILE PHOTO

The fastest way to get Hanford's radioactive waste out of possibly leaking or leak-prone underground tanks is to send some of the waste to New Mexico, Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday in the Tri-Cities.

As part of a full day, he met with the Herald editorial board and later Hanford Communities, an organization of local governments.

The state of Washington must "consistently be insistent" that the Department of Energy honor its commitments to clean up radioactive waste at Hanford and protect the Columbia River, he said.

Sending some of the waste to a national repository in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, could be done more quickly than building new and sturdier tanks to hold waste, he said.

But the state also will demand a better response to leaking tanks, he said. Last winter he called for more storage tanks to be built after DOE discovered the first of its 28 double-shell tanks was deteriorating. DOE is emptying waste in Hanford's 149 single-shell tanks into newer double-shell tanks until the waste can be treated for disposal. But the double-shell tanks are nearing capacity.

Even if tanks were not leaking, DOE still would need more tanks for the vitrification process, which also will add more waste storage capacity, he said.

A framework recommended for treating and disposing of much of Hanford's 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks was released Wednesday by the Department of Energy. Among the recommendations was sending up to 1.4 million gallons of waste in 11 of Hanford's 149 single-shell tanks to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, rather than glassifying it for disposal at the Hanford vitrification plant under construction.

Different tanks hold waste with different properties from various steps and methods used to chemically separate plutonium from uranium irradiated at Hanford's nuclear reactors during World War II and the Cold War.

The waste in 11 tanks is being evaluated to determine if it could be classified as transuranic waste, typically waste contaminated with plutonium, which the repository in New Mexico might accept if the proper permits were in place.

The DOE framework also recommends starting to treat some low activity radioactive waste from the tanks before the vitrification plant's Pretreatment and High Level Waste Facilities are operating. Those two facilities have technical issues that must be resolved to ensure the vitrification plant operates safely and efficiently.

Staging and feeding waste to the vitrification plant likely will require the construction of some new tanks. The tanks could be needed to prepare waste to be fed directly to the Low Activity Waste Facility or to resolve technical issues, such as addressing large plutonium particles that could produce an unplanned nuclear reaction in the Pretreatment Facility.

The vitrification plant is required under a court-enforced consent decree to be fully operating in 2022. But starting some work early would show the country Hanford cleanup is moving forward, Inslee said.

He also said he was glad to see DOE bringing some creativity to tank waste issues.

The Hanford Communities would like to see the state work cooperatively with DOE to make sure that funding for Hanford remains balanced between work to empty and treat tank waste and other environmental cleanup work at Hanford, said Steve Young, Kennewick mayor and chairman of the Hanford Communities Governing Board.

Other work at Hanford includes cleaning contaminated groundwater, digging up waste sites with radioactive and chemical contamination, and tearing down obsolete and sometimes heavily contaminated buildings.

Progress must continue on that work while the tank issues are being resolved, Young said.

He also recommended that Inslee meet annually with the managers of the three DOE offices in the Tri-Cities. Two DOE offices oversee Hanford environmental cleanup and the other oversees work at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The meetings could provide information on the huge challenges DOE faces and progress being made, Young said.

DOE has notified the state of Washington that it is at risk of missing some deadlines in the consent decree. But Young asked the governor to proceed carefully with any legal action by the state, saying it could be counterproductive.

The state needs to be judicious, but diligent, Inslee replied.

DOE is required to empty waste from Hanford's oldest double-shell tank, Tank AY-102, after it was discovered to be leaking from its inner shell, said Pam Larsen, executive director of Hanford Communities. The waste is believed to be contained between the tank's shells, rather than leaking into the ground as one or more single-shell tanks are.

Tank AY-102 contains a complicated mix of waste and if it is pumped into space remaining in multiple other double-shell tanks, it will also make their mix of waste more complex, Larsen said. That will complicate treatment of the waste, she said.

It may be best to delay emptying Tank AY-102, if legally possible, until DOE has new tanks built to blend and prepare waste to be piped to the vitrification plant, she said.

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

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