Details about Hanford withheld, Oregon senator says

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 1, 2014 

The Department of Energy withheld important information on the condition of underground waste tanks from the people of the Northwest and policymakers, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Saturday.

He held a news conference in Portland to follow up on a letter he sent Friday to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calling for information on how DOE plans to address tank issues. He talked to the Herald by telephone and his staff supplied audio of some of the news conference.

"This kind of stonewalling is absolutely unacceptable," Wyden told the media.

DOE confirmed that one of its 28 double-shell tanks had an interior leak in October 2012. The double-shell tanks are key to a plan to transfer and store waste from older, leak-prone single-shell tanks until it can be treated for disposal.

DOE led the people of the Northwest to believe that construction difficulties believed to have contributed to the leak between the shells of Tank AY-102, the first of the double-shell tanks built, was an isolated problem, Wyden said.

"Now we know that is not necessarily the case," he said.

Visual inspections of the tanks most at risk were done by lowering videocameras into the space between the shells of the tanks, and the inspections completed so far have shown only Tank AY-102 to be leaking.

DOE also started reviewing 250 boxes of records covering construction of the double-shell tanks from 1969 through the mid-1980s.

Its construction review on the first double-shell tank farm, or group of double-shell tanks, was completed in July 2013. Additional reviews were completed in August and November 2013, and February 2014, with one more review still in progress.

But the reviews were not shared with policymakers, Wyden said.

"There was certainly no intent to withhold information on these tanks," said DOE spokesman Erik Olds. "The evaluation of Hanford's double-shell tanks -- including the historical reviews, video inspections and extent of condition evaluations -- is an ongoing process."

The reviews are stamped "Approved for Public Release."

The reviews completed so far show that some of the construction issues at Tank AY-102 were repeated to a lesser extent in some other tanks. The reviews recommended "enhanced inspection" for some of the tanks, and DOE said it has responded by making plans to perform visual inspections of all tanks more often.

Wyden is concerned that six tanks in addition to Tank AY-102 have construction flaws that could increase the risk of leaks, and that 13 more tanks may have construction problems that will shorten their lifespan, he said. That leaves 20 of 28 double-shell tanks with possible risk factors, he said.

DOE has attributed the leak within the shells of Tank AY-102 to a combination of construction problems and a unique combination of material that includes waste at the bottom of the tank that did not have a corrosion inhibitor added and a large amount of additional waste added that generates high levels of heat.

The information DOE had as long as seven months ago could have been helpful to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, both of whom have called for new storage tanks to be built, Wyden said. Congress also should have been informed.

"To make good policy judgments you have got to have good information," he said.

The Washington State Department of Ecology is looking through the construction review reports and at first glance it does not look like the information they contain changes the state's understanding of tank issues, said Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Inslee.

But it is "deeply troubling" that the reports were not received, she said.

Wyden said he is not joining the call for new tanks to be built to safely store waste until it is treated, but believes all information should be available to make that decision.

He wants information within 45 days from the energy secretary on how DOE plans to address newly disclosed information on the double-shell tanks' construction history and the implication's for DOE's larger plans for waste cleanup.

Hanford's 28 double-shell tanks already are running short of space with just 11 of 149 single-shell tanks emptied to regulatory standards.

The waste will gradually be sent from double-shell tanks to the vitrification plant, but DOE has warned Washington that it might not meet a deadline for the plant fully operating by 2022.

"It feels like the movie Groundhog Day -- one problem after another," Wyden said.

He also pointed out that the failure to release reports came on the heels of whistleblower complaints at Hanford.

"Muzzling employees and hiding negative reports about conditions at Hanford still seems to be standard operating procedure," he said. "I just feel very strongly it's time for the Department of Energy to stop playing hide the ball on these matters."

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

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