State fines DOE $50,000 for mishandling waste at Hanford plant

Hanford’s T Plant was built to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel and now is used to store and treat waste.
Hanford’s T Plant was built to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel and now is used to store and treat waste. Courtesy DOE

The Department of Energy and one of its contractors are being fined $50,000 for mishandling waste at Hanford’s T Plant, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology, which issued the penalty.

“For everyone’s safety, dangerous waste at this nuclear facility must be properly managed and stored,” said Alex Smith, Ecology’s nuclear waste program manager, in a statement Tuesday.

The Department of Ecology also ordered DOE and its contractor, CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., to obtain detailed analysis of waste before storing it and to properly maintain records.

The waste included five containers holding leaking batteries, paint chips and concrete pieces, or grease. All the waste was generated at T Plant, and some of it came from floor scrapings that had the potential to include low levels of radioactive contamination.

T Plant was built during World War II to chemically separate plutonium for weapons use from uranium fuel irradiated at Hanford reactors. It now is used to store and treat Hanford waste during environmental cleanup of the nuclear reservation.

“Our records show the contractor did identify and designate all of the waste in the five containers by November 2015, and we will be inquiring about the possibility of a miscommunication on at least one of the violations,” said DOE spokesman Mark Heeter.

DOE and its contractor are required to identify the waste before it was put into storage, rather than a few days after an inspection, and must have information available to inspectors. within 24 hours of a request.

The state asked for records several times and based the violations on the records it received.

DOE has had trouble following the rules at T Plant in four previous inspections before the most recent inspection on Nov. 18, 2015, according to state records.

“Our inspectors have repeatedly cited Energy and its contractors for the same violations at the T Plant,” Smith said. This is the first time the state has levied a penalty.

The state Department of Ecology has hired two more inspectors since a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency review in 2013 found the state needed more.

With four inspectors instead of two, it increased the number of inspections it conducted in 2015 to 61, up from the previous record of 39 inspections in a year. It plans to hire a fifth inspector.

The state is concerned that if Hanford officials are not following the rules on simple wastes, like batteries, it could have more serious issues when it handles more hazardous and complex wastes.

Waste is required to be analyzed and correctly labeled before it is stored — indicating if it is corrosive or can easily catch fire, for example — to keep workers safe from hazards and make sure the waste is stored correctly.

In past inspections, the state found problems that included drums of soil contaminated with chemicals and radioactive material stored at T Plant in 2000 without proper labeling or analysis to determine what they contained. Fluor Hanford was the contractor in charge of T Plant then.

In a January 2015 inspection at T Plant the state said it found missing and inconsistent inspection records and an incomplete training plan.

DOE and CH2M Hill have 30 days to appeal the fine stemming from the November 2015 inspection to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board. DOE contractors may not use federal environmental cleanup money to pay fines, according to the Department of Ecology.

DOE is evaluating the notice from the state, Heeter said. It will be asking the Department of Ecology for clarification on a few items and discussing opportunities for improvement in how waste is handled.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

Related stories from Tri-City Herald