The Hanford Site, a former nuclear weapons production facility and the world’s largest environmental cleanup project, experienced another high-profile failure over the weekend, as one of the radioactive waste storage tanks sprung a serious leak, according to local NBC affiliate KING 5 News.
Located in southeastern Washington near the Columbia River, the Hanford Site stores radioactive waste left over from Cold War-era plutonium production. Much of it is stored in 177 massive underground tanks. Over the years, at least 67 single-shelled tanks have leaked over one million gallons of radioactive liquid into the surrounding groundwater.
This past weekend, workers discovered that a previously known leak that had been slowly oozing residue had ruptured, causing toxic waste to pool in the gap between the first and second shell of one of the huge double-shelled tanks. At just over eight inches deep and two feet wide, the pool of radioactive waste encircles the massive underground tank. While the outer shell contained the leak, it will seriously complicate already sensitive removal efforts. The outer shells of these tanks were not designed to hold significant amounts of toxic waste, and lack exhaust or filtration systems for the dangerous gasses these liquids produce. “The hazards to workers just went up by a factor of 10,” former Hanford tank worker Mike Geffre told the local NBC affiliate.
Geffre first discovered that the inner shell of this particular tank was failing five years ago—especially notable because it is the first double-shelled tank (out of 28) to spring a leak. Yet the contractor in charge of the site, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), didn’t officially acknowledge the leaking radioactive waste until a year later.
The Project On Government Oversight and other government watchdogs have reported on pervasive mismanagement issues, contractor fraud, safety lapses, and whistleblower retaliation at Hanford for years. The Department of Energy (DOE) is storing hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive waste there until the waste can be converted into a form that is stable and suitable for long-term storage. Unfortunately, actual progress towards that goal has not been made. As the GAO reported in 2015, the DOE has spent $19 billion over the past 25 years on storage tanks and treatment projects, yet not a single gallon of waste has been treated. And even with DOE’s significant investment in the project, the latest official report estimates it will cost an additional $107.7 billion and that cleanup won’t be complete until 2070.
Even the 2070 date is nearly half a century behind schedule. The 1989 Tri-Party Agreement that began the project required DOE to complete treatment by 2028. It was amended in 2009 to extend the deadline to 2047, and the deadline has continued drifting since. Although DOE’s most recent official estimated cleanup completion date is 2070, a DOE official speaking on background said DOE’s internal estimate is 2075, an estimate that doesn’t factor in known issues with the waste treatment facility, which are likely to add at least 17 more years to the project. Delays like this only increase the likelihood of additional leaks that are sure to be far worse than this one.
The storage-tank leaks at the Hanford Site are indicative of numerous failures at the strategic level. When it became apparent that the first-of-its-kind Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) was incredibly behind schedule and experiencing all sorts of problems, new tanks or other storage facilities should have been constructed to hold the dangerous waste in the interim. As far back as 1991, POGO (then called the Project On Government Procurement) reported that the technology to be used at Hanford was already years behind schedule and billions over budget. As Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson recently said, “the federal government has long been more focused on excusing its delays than being a good partner in cleaning up the toxic mess they left behind.”
“The primary tanks weren’t designed to stage waste like this for so many years,” a current worker told King 5 news. The single-shelled tanks, built between 1943 and 1964, were only designed to last 20 years and over a third of them are known to have leaks, according to the local watchdog group Hanford Challenge. Decades beyond their designed lifespan, it’s no surprise they are leaking—and it will be no surprise as more leaks are found in the coming decades. The double-shelled tanks were built around 1980, and were designed to be more robust. But the recent leak casts doubt on how much longer they will remain effective.
The recent leak should draw attention to the systemic management issues at the Hanford Site. It should also draw attention to the problems in the oversight process that have allowed this to happen. For years, employees have reported safety violations and systemic corruption with the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plan. A 2012 memo from the Waste Treatment Plant engineering director listed 34 instances of engineering defects, unmet safety standards, and factually incorrect information on the part of Bechtel National, the contractor responsible for WTP’s construction. And this is not the first time Bechtel has gotten in trouble. It has paid nearly $400 million in contract penalties over the last 20 years, and in 2014, the partnership managing and operating Los Alamos National Lab, which includes Bechtel, lost 90 percent of its award fee due to “significant or ‘First Degree’ performance failure.”
The continued lack of an effective strategy to store and treat radioactive waste guarantees that Hanford will continue to show up in the news for all the wrong reasons. It’s time for DOE to stop throwing good money into a bad solution, and instead create a reasonable, cost-effective, and responsible plan to clean up the mess that it has made—both in the tanks and in the surrounding area.