Hanford

Mobile lab to detect Hanford chemical vapors being tested

RJ Lee explains how its mobile chemical detection lab works

Washington River Protection Solutions is testing RJ Lee's mobile laboratory for possible use to detect and monitor chemical vapors in the Hanford tank farms.
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Washington River Protection Solutions is testing RJ Lee's mobile laboratory for possible use to detect and monitor chemical vapors in the Hanford tank farms.

New technology is being tested at the Hanford tank farms that might play a role in learning more about chemical vapors at the nuclear reservation and help better protect workers.

RJ Lee Group has developed a commercially available mobile laboratory, equipping a van with scientific instrumentation. A mass spectrometer in the van can detect chemicals that quickly evaporate into the air, even if they make up just a few parts per trillion of a sample.

Four one-week tests of the mobile laboratory are planned over two months before Department of Energy contractor Washington River Protection Solutions decides whether to add it to its chemical vapor detection and monitoring program.

The first week of testing has just concluded. Workers may have seen the white van on site, parking in or near tank farms, and then extending a mast to suck in some air to see what its instrumentation can detect.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory had previously done some laboratory testing on the equipment before field testing began.

The mobile lab was one of the technologies picked for further investigation following a technology exchange workshop the tank farm contractor held in February 2015.

The mobile lab offers three potential benefits — real time analysis, detailed chemical analysis and low detection limits.

Washington River Protection Solutions held discussions with businesses, universities and national labs on vapor conditions at the Hanford tank farms after an independent assessment concluded that brief, intense vapor releases could be causing respiratory symptoms in workers.

Now workers exit the tank farms or other nearby areas if at least two of them smell an odor or if one worker develops symptoms that could be caused by chemical vapors from the waste held in underground tanks. Symptoms often include coughing, shortness of breath and dizziness.

This spring, nearly 50 Hanford workers have been given medical evaluations and cleared to return to work after possible exposure to chemical vapors.

But Washington River Protection Solutions often reports that checks after the events find chemicals only at levels well below the regulatory standards set to keep workers safe.

The mobile lab offers three potential benefits — real-time analysis, detailed chemical analysis and low detection limits, said Karthik Subramanian, manager of the contractor’s chief technology office.

Washington River Protection Solutions plans a second technology exchange meeting in July to focus on capture, destruction and elimination of chemical vapors.

The RJ Lee mobile laboratory can detect three-quarters of the 59 chemicals the DOE contractor believes are of potential concern. They have been identified as chemicals that can be present in the head space of underground waste-storage tanks that could cause health problems, according to Washington River Protection Solutions.

It identifies them in near real time in the field, rather than requiring samples to be collected and shipped off to a lab for analysis.

Potentially, the lab could be used as a “storm chaser,” traveling to suspected plumes to track and sample them. It also could be based at the filters where underground tanks are ventilated to determine what is being released into the air.

It also could collect data that would be used following suspected vapor events to sort out what chemical vapors may not be associated with tank waste, such as exhaust from cars or diesel generators.

The testing being conducted is looking at the type and concentrations of chemicals it is capable of finding and identifying at the Hanford tank farms and how it could be integrated with technology already being used at the tank farms to detect and monitor chemical vapors, Subramanian said.

Washington River Protection Solutions is preparing to hold another technology exchange meeting in July, this one looking at how to capture, destroy or otherwise eliminate chemical vapors.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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