Attorney general, senator call for DOE accountability at Hanford

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2016 frustrated with the slow pace of cleanup.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in said his legal team was reviewing options to accelerate the lawsuit to protect Hanford workers from vapor exposures at the tank farms. He was joined by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
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State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in said his legal team was reviewing options to accelerate the lawsuit to protect Hanford workers from vapor exposures at the tank farms. He was joined by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson say their patience is wearing thin waiting for Department of Energy results at Hanford.

Both visited Richland Thursday, with Wyden also touring Hanford.

Ferguson is looking at options to accelerate a lawsuit he filed last year to protect Hanford workers against chemical vapors associated with radioactive waste held in underground tanks.

As of Thursday, 47 Hanford workers had received medical evaluations for possible exposure to chemical vapors over the seven days that began April 28.

“How many Washingtonians need to be exposed to vapors before the federal government solves this problem?” Ferguson asked at a press conference.

The exposures in recent days illustrate why Ferguson felt the need to file a lawsuit in September against the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, he said.

The issue is not just the workers who have reported potential exposures in recent days, but the hundreds of workers who have been exposed over the last two decades as report after report is written about chemical vapors and worker protection, he said.

The lawsuit, which has been combined with one filed by Local Union 598, which represents Hanford pipefitters and welders, and Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based advocacy group for Hanford workers, is not set to go to trial until next May.

It is a big case and complicated, Ferguson said, and he would like action to better protect workers before then.

He also has asked his staff to investigate possible legal avenues that the state could pursue in addition to the lawsuit.

Real people are behind the numbers tallied for possible exposures, he said, and he thinks about how he would feel if an exposed worker were a member of his family.

He has called on President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to take the same personal perspective on tank exposures.

If it takes getting workers on supplied air respirators to protect them, that is what should be done, he said.

Workers currently wear supplied air respirators for work at Hanford that is expected to increase the risk of chemical vapors, primarily when tanks are emptied or waste is otherwise disturbed.

The initial reports of suspicious smells and symptoms such as headaches and coughing appeared to be linked to work to empty waste from a double-shell tank with an interior leak and transfer it to a sturdier double-shell tank.

That work stopped when chemical vapors were first reported last week. Workers have continued to report smells or symptoms. Most of the continuing reports were from workers in the tank farms.

Of the workers who were medically evaluated, 34 reported symptoms and 13 had no symptoms but were evaluated as a precaution. All workers have been cleared to return to work.

Both Ferguson and Wyden were scheduled to meet with affected Hanford workers after the press conference Thursday.

Wyden had broader concerns. He toured the Hanford tank farms to learn about work to empty waste from leaking or leak-prone underground tanks, and asked why progress on tank waste is so slow.

“Citizens want to see results,” he said.

Some $19 billion of taxpayer money has been spent in 20 years, “yet not one single gallon of high-level radioactive waste has been treated,” he said. That’s about $1,700 spent per every resident of Oregon and Washington state.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, some since World War II when the site started producing plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. A vitrification plant is being built to treat the waste for permanent disposal, but it is not expected to start treating some radioactive waste until 2022 and be fully operational until 2036.

The site has major league problems and it needs more than minor league solutions, Wyden said.

He will consider what he learned Thursday at Hanford and take some time to lay out the next steps, he said.

Although he gave no hint of what action he may take, in the past he has effected change at Hanford through legislation. He passed a law in 1990 that created what came to be called the Wyden Watch List, a list of tanks at risk of an explosion because of a potential buildup of flammable gas.

Congress wants to give experts on Hanford a wide berth, but the nation still needs to see results, he said Thursday.

There are “very decent and honorable people” at DOE who told him Thursday morning that Hanford issues and work are complicated, he said.

But “what is the department going to do after decades and $19 billion to show real results?” he asked. Deadlines always seem to be missed and the goal posts always seem to be moved.

“We have got to do something different,” he said.

He remains concerned about the buildup of flammable gas in tanks. Although DOE closed out the watch list to fanfare in 2001, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said in 2012 that DOE needed to do more to guard against a buildup of flammable gases in its 28 double-shell tanks.

The issue is yet to be resolved, with DOE officials telling Wyden they were working through a phased, multi-year plan.

Wyden also raised questions about why the bottom of double-shell Tank AY-102 had not been inspected nearly four years after it was confirmed to be leaking waste between its shells.

The technology does not exist, officials said.

Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Office of River Protection, said he had issued a challenge to the DOE national labs to come up with a crawler that could withstand the radiological environment to get a look at the bottom of double-shell tanks.

Concerns have increased about Hanford’s tanks after work last month to empty waste from Tank AY-102, when the rate of leakage increased dramatically.

No waste is believed to have breached the tank’s outer shell, and waste in the 30-foot-tall space between the tanks has remained at 4.6 inches deep for more than a week. DOE pumps waste back into the primary shell when it reaches a little more than 5 inches deep between the shells.

Questions also have been raised about whether a second double-shell tank, Tank AY-101, has developed an interior leak.

DOE officials told Wyden that a radiation reading in the space between its shells appeared to be from contamination as long ago as 1976 and they do not believe the tank is leaking. A video inspection showed no waste between its shells.

His briefing at Hanford included a rundown of policies used to protect workers from chemical vapors.

Washington River Protection Solutions is in its 15th month of implementing a detailed plan to better protect workers based on the recommendations of an independent panel led by the Savannah River National Laboratory.

That more than 40 workers have reported concerns should be a wakeup call, Wyden said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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