DOE, state ask court for more time to empty Hanford radioactive waste from leaky tanks

The Department of Energy would have more time to empty radioactive waste from some underground tanks under a proposal in federal court.
The Department of Energy would have more time to empty radioactive waste from some underground tanks under a proposal in federal court. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The Department of Energy would get an extra two and a half years to get the next group of Hanford’s leak-prone, underground tanks emptied of radioactive tanks, under a proposal filed in federal court this week.

In 2016 U.S. Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson set new deadlines for DOE to empty some of the nuclear reservation’s single-shell tanks as it became clear that deadlines set in a federal court consent decree in 2010 could not be met.

She required that DOE have nine more single-shell tanks emptied by March 31, 2024. Those would be in addition to the 17 of the site’s 149 single-shell tanks that have been emptied to regulatory standards to date.

DOE and the state of Washington, which filed the lawsuit that resulted in the consent decree deadline, are asking Malouf Peterson to extend the deadline to the end of 2026.

They also are asking that a deadline to keep the work on pace be extended by six months. Now DOE is required to have the first two of the next nine tanks emptied by the end of 2020.

The next nine tanks to be emptied include five in the group called the A Tank Farm and all four tanks in the AX Tank Farm.

DOE notified the court just nine months after the consent decree was issued that it was at serious risk of missing a deadline to have all nine single-shell tanks emptied by the 2024 deadline.

It said then that work was being slowed by safety precautions to protect workers from breathing toxic chemical vapors.

DOE’s tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, reached an agreement with the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, an umbrella group of 15 Hanford unions, in August 2016. It requires workers to use supplied air respirators for most work in the tank farms.

tank farm vertical.jpg
Supplied air respirators with tanks of compressed air protect workers from breathing in chemical vapors at the Hanford tank farms, but slow work, according to the Department of Energy. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

Workers must carry a bottle of compressed air and additional equipment, together weighing 30 to 40 pounds. The equipment tires workers more quickly and work must to be stopped every 20 to 40 minutes to change out air bottles, DOE said then.

It estimated that the cumbersome equipment reduced efficiency by an average of 50 percent.

The supplied air respirators are still slowing the pace of work to empty the waste from single-shell tanks into newer double-shell tanks for storage until the waste can be treated for disposal, according to court documents.

In addition, DOE is analyzing “retrieval challenges and tank condition issues” associated with two of the nine tanks covered by the consent decree deadline.

The issues under discussion could require DOE to issue another notice that meeting deadlines is at risk and to seek further changes to the consent decree, it said.

Although the issues with the two tanks — A-104 and A-105 — were not explained in legal documents, they are the only two of the nine tanks that are believed to have leaked radioactive waste in the past.

Pumpable liquids have been removed from all single-shell tanks to reduce the risk of leaking.

That may not be the end of requested changes to the consent decree.

“The parties are engaged in continuing discussions regarding other consent decree-related issues, and may at a later date — either jointly or individually — seek additional amendments to the consent decree or other relief,” according to a document filed with the court this week.

The consent decree also covers deadlines for the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction to turn tank waste into a stable glass form for disposal.

Additionally, the consent decree includes possible requirements for more double-shell tanks to be built, and it has requirements for DOE reports to the states of Washington and Oregon.

The joint proposal from DOE and Washington to extend deadlines for emptying some single-shell tanks has been expected since a settlement agreement was reached in another lawsuit filed by the state against DOE and its tank farm contractor.

The state, Hanford Challenge and union Local 598 sued to gain better protection for Hanford workers from tank farm chemical vapors in September 2015.

The settlement agreement in the vapors lawsuit will not go into effect unless the court first extends the consent decree deadlines for emptying single-shell tanks.

The settlement agreement does not dismiss the vapors lawsuit, but puts it on hold as DOE continues to improve safety for tank farm workers.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews