The recent leak of radioactive waste between the two shells of Hanford’s oldest double-shell tank is both a success story and cautionary tale.
Hanford officials involved in controlling and managing the faulty tank had a contingency plan in place in case more leakage occurred, and the good news is that it has worked so far.
All the evidence shows the outer shell of the tank did its job and contained the dangerous waste, and workers were able to identify the problem and manage it. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, there is no indication the environment was contaminated.
That’s the success story.
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When the alarm went off April 17 that waste between the shells was rising, workers were ready to handle the situation.
They succeeded in their attempt to remove the waste that was leaking into the space between the two shells of Tank AY-102 and transfer it back into the primary tank, following a set of emergency procedures that had been developed months ago with Washington state officials.
The discovery that this particular tank was leaking from the inner shell happened several years ago, and the state had ordered the Department of Energy — the federal agency in charge of Hanford — to begin removing the nearly 800,000 gallons of radioactive waste by March 4.
Washington River Protection Solutions, the contractor hired by DOE to manage the tanks, began to pump out the radioactive waste a day ahead of schedule. The task was going well until it was detected two weeks into the effort that significantly more waste had begun leaking.
DOE officials said they had anticipated this might happen, and that pumping the waste could trigger additional leaked waste to accumulate between the shells.
While we are grateful Hanford officials were prepared, we would suggest that in the future they let the public know what problems might arise just before they start pumping so that people are not caught off guard.
All this radioactive waste is left from past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, and the brew is deadly. If people had been made more aware that Hanford officials were ready in case of a leak, it might have stemmed some of the outcry around the state.
When it was announced that the leak was increasing between the shells, environmental watchdogs began calling the situation “catastrophic” and the overreaction was not helpful.
And while DOE and the contractor appear to have handled waste removal at Tank AY-102 successfully so far, we can’t help but continue to be concerned about other tanks at Hanford and what problems might arise with them, particularly the single-shell tanks.
There are 149 single-shell tanks at Hanford that were built between 1943 and 1964. Another 28 tanks made with double-shells were built from 1968 to 1986. Radioactive liquid has been pumped from most of the single-shell tanks and put in the double-shell containers, but there is still much waste to be dealt with.
And the construction of the vitrification plant, which would turn the waste into glass for safer disposal, is still decades away.
This latest scare about the leak in Tank AY-102 appears to have been handled appropriately, and we are grateful for that. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to be concerned about the pace of Hanford cleanup, which cannot fall behind.
And state and federal officials could do a better job of communicating with the public. Hanford is a frightening site, however well it is being managed.