Washington State Dept. of Ecology officials are fed up with the federal government's handling of a leaking nuclear waste tank at Hanford, prompting an unusually harsh letter to the U.S. Department of Energy blasting Hanford's managers for wasting time and failing to finalize plans on how to address the leak.
"In short, we are deeply disappointed,” Ecology's top Hanford regulator, Jane Hedges, wrote in a January 9 letter. “Your proposal, as we understand it, is to monitor the leaking Tank AY-102 and take no action to remove its waste until conditions get worse. This is unacceptable. You have known for more than a year that Tank AY-102 is leaking ... and what the regulations require in response.”
A 2013 series by the KING 5 Investigators showed that the government contractor charged with managing millions of gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford knew, or should have known, that tank AY-102 was leaking as early as October 2011 -- more than a year before state officials were told. AY-102 contains the most chemically contaminated and radioactive nuclear byproducts held at the site. The worst case scenario would be waste migrating into the groundwater and eventually into the nearby Columbia River.
In the wake of KING 5's reporting, Ecology in May ordered the Energy Department to produce a plan for emptying the tank -- as required by Washington state law, which says any nuclear waste tank at Hanford that's found to be leaking must be emptied within 24 hours. Energy responded on June 14, saying it would take 19 months to plan and prepare to empty the tank.
Ecology's reaction to that plan, delivered in Hedges' Jan. 9 letter, is dismissive. Hedges wrote: “Currently, you do not know: The location of the leak. The rate of the leakage. The conditions of the leak site. What effect changes in temperature will have on the leak. When or how the leak might worsen.”
Another concern highlighted in the letter is that the leak is potentially clogging channels located at the bottom of the tank that help ventilate the vessel and its extremely hot contents. Experts told KING 5 that excessive heat could lead to an explosion or an accelerated rate of corrosion of the tank’s walls.
“You appear to have no plan for what to do if the ventilation channels do clog. ... Nor can you predict how long the secondary containment will maintain integrity. Indeed, the integrity of the secondary containment might be compromised already,” wrote Hedges. “Ecology insists that you must remove the waste as soon as possible.”
The letter recommends that the federal government work with the state to produce a workable plan for pumping the tank by February 15.
'It’s not enough to send a letter'
State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), the legislature’s leading expert on Hanford, told KING 5 he thinks the state’s response is weak. He said the time for talking about a plan is over and that the state should use its authority to impose a legally binding enforcement order to compel the Energy Department and the private contractor to empty the tank.
“It’s not enough to send a letter that says, 'Please talk to us.' It’s time for an enforceable order that says, 'Empty the tank on a firm schedule, otherwise a court will find you in contempt,'” said Pollet.
Pollet said he is also disturbed by the timing of the state’s letter. In June Ecology Director Maia Bellon told KING 5 that it was time for the state to take aggressive action on the leaking tank at Hanford.
“This is very serious,” said Bellon in June. “Let me be very clear, the timeliness and how this [the leak in AY-102] has been responded to is unacceptable to the state of Washington.”
Pollet and other stakeholders were surprised to hear the state waited seven months after Energy's June 14 response to issue an official warning letter.
"The governor has said we have a zero tolerance policy (on leaking nuclear waste). A zero tolerance policy doesn’t mean we wait six months and talk to you more," said Pollet.
Ecology's January 9 letter to the Energy department came three days after KING 5 wrote to inquire on the status of the department’s work on AY-102.
“What has Ecology done, if anything, in response to our findings about AY-102?,” reporter Susannah Frame wrote to an Ecology communications manager. “It has been seven months since we aired a story with Director Bellon. She did a good job of telling us and the public that the Dept. of Ecology was taking the issues seriously, was investigating, working with the AG’s office to decide what to do and would be coming up with a full plan after received the pumping plan from DOE. The pumping plan came out more than six months ago. So, now we are checking in to see what the state has done.”
On January 10, KING received the letter written by Hedges, dated January 9.
"It's very clear to me that the state only sent this letter after you asked, "How come you haven't responded?'" said Pollet. "Every minute that waste leaks from the tank dramatically increases the cost of the clean up, never mind the environmental harm and the risks."
“(The timing) is just a coincidence,” said Dept. of Ecology spokesperson Dieter Borhmann. “The letter has been in the works for a long time –- weeks if not months.”