HANFORD NUCLEAR RESERVATION
4:21 pm
Mon March 25, 2013

Hanford cleaup slows while tanks leak, tratment plant stalls

Every day, up to three gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford seeps into the desert sand from underground tanks, not far from the Columbia River.

That has prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to tour the remote site along with buses full of officials and media that roll through a sea of sagebrush.

The buses slow near some of the leaking radioactive underground tanks. Tom Fletcher, who manages the containment farms, points out the various groupings.

“So T is right in front of us to the right, you can see the yellow barrier over it. And TY is right in front of us at about a 45-degree angle to the left.”

Nearby, Governor Inslee steps off his bus in chestnut cowboy boots. Here, staring through the tank farm’s cyclone fence, Inslee asks Fletcher about the waste.

“So as you would classify this, is this TRU or high level waste?” the governor asks. 

“This is high-level waste. C-Farm is all high-level waste," says Fletcher. 

A slow process slowed even more

Even the fastest government plans to get radioactive waste out of these aging underground tanks would take years. Inslee announces one idea on his tour: Ship some to New Mexico.

Back on the bus, Tom Fletcher says it’s hard to say how long that would take.

“… it would require permitting from New Mexico to be done as well as permitting from Washington state to be done," he explains. "And those are two unknowns.”

Now, the federal budget sequester is slowing work at Hanford even further. More than 200 employees were recently handed layoff notices. There could be 2,500 furloughs.

Unresolved technical issues

“What’s holding up progress at the Hanford site is the Department of Energy’s inability to resolve a host of technical problems surrounding the design of the waste treatment plant and the state of high-level waste storage tanks,” says U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman the Senate Energy Committee which watches over Hanford.

That waste treatment plant is a more than $12 billion factory that would bind-up the radioactive sludge in massive glass logs. The plant is more than half built. But safety concerns have idled major portions of the project.

“I believe before they start up those facilities again we need to have the safety and technical issues resolved,” says Donna Busche, a reluctant whistleblower and a top nuclear safety manager on the plant.

It's a big problem, she says. Since every tank is filled with different material, the government can’t tightly define what the waste will be like when it’s fed into the treatment plant. She says that’s a fundamental flaw because engineers still don’t know what the plant needs to handle.

Busche says it’s kind of like building a new home and not knowing what type of cook you are and what type of garbage disposal to buy.

“So if all you do is heat up microwave dinners, you just rinse out your plastic, the $69 model will be OK," she says. "If you’re a chef and you’re constantly cooking with new and exciting ingredients – you want the robust garbage disposal that can handle anything you put in there.”

Meanwhile, 56 million gallons of radioactive waste still brews away in leaking underground tanks in the middle of Washington’s desert. The next likely shepherd of these aging vessels is President Obama’s pick for Energy secretary Ernest Moniz. His confirmation hearing is scheduled for April 9.