Thousands of documents obtained by KREM 2's sister station KING 5 reveal a lack of action and a denial of the serious nature of a spill of nuclear waste by at the Hanford nuclear facility in eastern Washington.
The records were generated by the Washington State Department of Ecology during its investigation of the spill, which occurred in February 2012 in the central region of the 586-square-mile Hanford site. Employees of the government contractor CH2M Hill were inspecting large metal boxes stored in the open air on a bed of gravel when they discovered radioactive liquid beside one of the boxes. The container, with obvious signs of rust and deterioration, was thought to be storing only solid materials such as piping, gloves and masks discarded during the decades of plutonium production at Hanford.
A manager with the U.S. Department of Energy gave a “courtesy call” to an Ecology inspector the next day, reporting that workers had found some contamination on the ground near the storage container, but that “at this time (there is) no reason to believe that it (the contamination) is coming from the interior corner of the box.” The manager said it was likely "snow or ice melt" coming off the box, according to notes of the call.
Detailed notes from a meeting two weeks later show what the Department of Energy did not report in the phone call. The CH2M Hill workers recorded very hot Alpha readings from the liquid on the ground. One of the only things at Hanford that emits Alpha particles is Plutonium -- the dangerously radioactive metal produced at Hanford between 1944 to 1989 for U.S. nuclear weapons program.
“(Those numbers) would indicate a problem, a serious problem,” said Wade Wagner, a retired radiation specialist from Hanford whose job was to record contamination levels at the site for 22 years. “The first thing I would do after verifying that level of Alpha contamination would be to get away from it. You don’t want that stuff in your system.”
Ecology investigated the incident and within three weeks confirmed the box was leaking and that there had been a dangerous waste spill into the environment.
But Energy Department employees said they didn’t agree. At the same time Ecology was confirming the serious nature of the incident and in fact, it was a leak. Energy spokesperson Cameron Hardy spoke with a Tri-Cities television reporter and denied those findings.
"Somebody misinterpreted the fact that there were drips as it being drips of something other than rainwater,” Hardy told the reporter. “Someone's saying it's a leaker, when it's not."
When the reporter asked why there would be readings of radioactivity from snow melt, the spokesperson didn’t have an answer, saying only, “I don't know that answer."
In March 2012, lab results came in with conclusive evidence. Dangerous toxics including lead, mercury, americium and plutonium had spilled onto the gravel.
"If a tiny fraction of plutonium gets in your lungs, you're likely to get lung cancer," said Steven Gilbert, a toxicologist who has worked on issues at Hanford for many years. “The point is you never want plutonium anywhere but contained. You never want it in the environment.”
A review of more than 2,000 state records by the KING 5 Investigators shows the Department of Energy and CH2M Hill stuck to their theory that the box never leaked and there was no release of radiation into the open air.
The documents also show state investigators were blocked for weeks from getting records about the incident and access to the site to take samples for themselves.
The stand-off between government agencies prompted state investigators to write up their frustrations in internal emails.
"This is the most fascinating leak of 'rainwater' my career has seen or heard of," wrote one investigator.
“I'm not surprised,” wrote another. “The US DOE is consistently in denial."
In another email an investigator wrote, "We are told that this liquid is either snow melt or rainwater and there are no cracks or leaks in the box. This has been their story for 4 weeks now doing very little (to nothing) to mitigate the release, provide Ecology a recovery plan or cooperate with Ecology on our requested sampling event.”
Two years after the leak was detected, the Department of Energy maintains there was no leak from the container. When asked specific questions about where the radiation may have come from if not from inside the container, Energy responded only with this written statement from spokesperson Geoffrey Tyree:
“The Department of Energy and its contractor have gained significant experience over the years with waste containers that have been retrieved from underground storage. DOE has agreed to improve its management and regulation of activities involving the waste containers. The Department is committed to making these improvements in the next several months, which will help the Department achieve its goal of treating and disposing of this waste."
The box is still sitting outside on gravel but is now covered and is routinely monitored. It is made of concrete and weighs 88,000 pounds. It was buried in a trench at Hanford 30 years ago and was exhumed in 2008 as part of the ongoing clean-up effort. It is one of more than 500 aging boxes of this size that are sitting on gravel at Hanford’s Central Waste Complex.
The Department of Energy offered the following as background information for this report:
The Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office (RL) and the Washington State Department of Ecology have worked together to identify improvements to waste management practices at Hanford’s Central Waste Complex. During past plutonium production operations, waste containers were filled with things such as failed equipment, protective clothing, and tools before being placed in designated areas in the ground on Hanford’s Central Plateau. In 2003, RL and Ecology agreed to retrieve and characterize waste stored underground. RL has identified a number of improvements to its waste management practices associated with this waste.
* Revised the process for notifying Ecology of a potential release of hazardous waste.
* Additional training of personnel on the improved notification process
* More frequent sampling of waste containers
* A review of labeling of the large boxes in the outdoor storage area
* Placement of covers on the large boxes stored outside to prevent infiltration by rain or snow runoff.
* A review of the integrity of the containers
* A review of the integrity of the roofs of buildings in the Central Waste Complex