A government-chartered advisory panel was told last September that materials spotted outside the inner wall of a tank holding radioactive waste at the Hanford Site were possibly the result of a "carbonate buildup," “cross-contamination” or "rainwater leakage."
"We've seen a lot of things and they don't point to any one thing," a senior U.S. Department of Energy official at Hanford told the group on Sept. 7, "so that's why it's hard to speculate what it is."
But internal emails obtained by KING 5, written by the government contractor carrying the multi-billion-dollar contract to manage the tanks, show that tests conducted weeks earlier had already confirmed that the materials found in the safety space of the double-shell tank were highly radioactive and matched the chemical makeup of waste contained in the primary tank.
On Aug. 13, results of a scientific analysis showed samples taken from the space contained high levels of two radioactive isotopes -- Strontium-90 and Cesium-137. Smaller traces of Plutonium-239/240 and Americium-241 were also detected. In addition scientists analyzing the sample found traces of potassium -- a unique marker to this specific tank (found in one other double-shell tank at Hanford).
It would be another two-and-a-half months after the August 13 lab results before the Department of Energy and the private company that manages Hanford's tank farms officially announced that the underground tank known as 241-AY-102 was indeed leaking the most toxic material on the planet – the first double-shell tank to leak at Hanford.
The delay in disclosing the August test results is not easily explained, given that the results came after numerous red flags had been documented over the previous ten months that strongly suggested a leak had occurred in the tank. Instead of thoroughly investigating those red flags, the first of which were detected in October 2011, the contractor -- Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) -- continued to insist that that rainwater, not nuclear waste, had made its way into the space between the two tank walls.
The leak of a double-shell tank is seen by nuclear policy experts as one of the most significant setbacks at Hanford in the last decade. There are 28 such tanks at the 586-square-mile government reservation in southeastern Washington, holding millions of gallons of radioactive waste generated by decades of plutonium production. These tanks were expected to hold the waste securely for another 40 to 50 years while technology is developed and the process to dispose of the waste permanently is implemented. Dozens of the older, single-shell tanks have already leaked and cannot be relied upon to keep the environment and people safe from the hazardous materials.
Overall, how the evidence of the leak in Tank 241-AY-102 was mishandled for a year raises questions about how the Department of Energy and private contractors are managing the multi-billion-dollar cleanup at Hanford and fulfilling their obligation to keep policymakers and the public informed about potential threats to the environment and human health.
Evidence on duct tape
The unknown materials referenced in the Sept. 7 briefing were spotted during a photographic inspection conducted by WRPS technicians in the first week of August. The materials were spotted in Tank 241-AY-102's annulus -- the 2-foot-wide space separating the inner and outer walls of the tank.
To obtain physical samples, WRPS workers attached a piece of duct tape to a probe and lowered it to the annulus floor. When it was retrieved, the tape was covered with specks of rust and other solid materials.
The tape was sent to the 222-S Laboratory at Hanford, also managed by WRPS, for testing. A Saturday, Aug. 11 email from the WRPS radiochemistry manager acknowledged receipt and promised results by Monday morning.
On Aug. 13, the results were sent to multiple WRPS officials showing measurable amounts of Cesium-137 and Strontium-90, two highly radioactive elements that are a byproduct of nuclear fission. Trace amounts of Plutonium 239/240 and Americium-241 were also detected.
A reference to the results in a Leak Assessment Report made public on Nov. 7 says the materials were registering 800,000 dpm (disintegrations per minute), a high level of radioactivity that had never been found in that portion of the tank before.
But one month later, the message delivered to the 32-member Hanford Advisory Board -- made up of public officials, scientists and citizens -- was hardly alarming. Tom Fletcher, the DOE's assistant manager for the Hanford tank farms project, gave an 11-page presentation in which only one reference was made to contamination being detected on the duct tape sample, with no details about what radioactive elements were found. There was also no mention of the high radioactive reading.
In an audio recording of his presentation, Fletcher is heard saying, "We haven't gotten to a point that says, 'Hey, we know what it is.' We know there's a history of rainwater leakage in this tank annulus."
Attendees said the message they took away was that there was no major problem with AY-102.
"They were saying, 'Don't jump to conclusions, it's just a possible leak,'" said Meredith Crafton, policy and advocacy coordinator at the watchdog group Hanford Challenge who attended with her boss, Tom Carpenter.
"The overall presentation was, 'We're looking, but we don't see any evidence yet, don’t worry,'" Carpenter said. “’It could be rainwater, it could be liquids that got there some other way. We’re not sure what it is.’”
"Their answer was, 'We're investigating, but we think that it's likely rainwater," said another attendee, state Rep. Gerry Pollet of Seattle.
Fletcher also told the board that no contamination was found on the camera that had been inserted into the annulus space to take still pictures and videotape of the material.
“Camera equipment has been removed in all cases without incident. When I say without incident, it’s that there’s no contamination on the equipment itself, so we’re not seeing any airborne contamination flying around as we’re doing this,” said Fletcher.
Here’s what Fletcher didn’t tell the group: The cameras used for the video inspections are never contaminated. Safety protocol calls for the cameras to be covered with a protective sleeve to ensure the expensive equipment remains clean and can be used again.
“Those cameras are worth thousands of dollars and a plastic sleeving is always put on them,” said a Hanford worker familiar with the video monitoring process who spoke with KING 5 on the condition of anonymity. “You would never expect the camera to be contaminated.”
Fletcher also failed to tell the group contamination was discovered on a towel used to wipe down the cable used to lower the probe into the annulus. In an August 11 email obtained by KING, the WRPS radiochemistry manager writes, “A masslin (sic)-type cloth was included with the “weight and tape” sample. This cloth was contaminated and was saved for future analysis, if desired.”
Based on the results from the duct tape sample in August, "[a]ll the information was there to make the right decision" and conclude that AY-102 was leaking, said Marco Kaltofen, a top nuclear researcher based at Worcester Polytechnic in Massachusetts.
"The laboratory results from that tank annulus, that was the smoking gun. You have all the information you needed; you knew you had a leak. Now it was time to fess up and face the music," Kaltofen said after reviewing the Aug. 13 test results at KING 5's request, adding: "You actually have to go out and look hard for equipment that can measure radiation that is that high."
Crafton and Carpenter of Hanford Challenge criticized the failure to disclose the August test results at the Sept. 7 meeting.
"If they're going to dismiss the obvious evidence in front of them and not even tell us about that, then how can we rely on them for anything?" said Carpenter. “They can’t open their mouths without everyone questioning, wow, is that the whole story? Is that a lie? There’s a long history of deception on the part of the Department of Energy and Hanford officials.”
"I think it can put the public at risk and the workers at risk when they're not forthcoming with information," Crafton said, "also meaning they're not forthcoming with responding to issues and creating solutions to ensure that the public, the environment and the workforce at Hanford is adequately protected."
Facts withheld in additional public meetings
In September 2012, the Washington State Department of Ecology held meetings in Washington and Oregon to take public input on Washington’s pending dangerous waste permit for the Hanford Site.
The state has the authority through the permitting process to impose requirements on the treatment, storage and disposal of dangerous and mixed waste at Hanford. At a meeting at the Seattle Center on September 19, Heart of America Northwest, a citizen watchdog group, gave a presentation explaining to the group that Tank AY-102 was leaking and that citizens should urge the state to come up with a plan to deal with that tank failure in the permit.
Officials present at the meeting from both the Department of Ecology and U.S. Department of Energy downplayed any serious problem in their comments to attendees.
“They denied that it was leaking,” said Pollet, who is also executive director of Heart of America Northwest. “The vibe was, ‘We’re still investigating so it’s premature to take comment on that.’ So, many public officials who were commenting on the permit and hundreds of people were lied to and denied the chance to make an effective case for why the permit needed to have much more stringent conditions and an emergency or contingency plan for what to do if this tank was leaking.”
The public comment period for the state’s permit officially ended on October 22, 2012 -- the same day WRPS and the Energy Department released a statement confirming that Tank AY-102 was leaking nuclear sludge.
“This was a very deliberate cover up and I will use the word that we were lied to. There’s no two ways about it, we were lied to,” said state Rep. Pollet.
Officials from the Department of Energy and WRPS declined KING 5's repeated requests for an on-camera interview. Neither would respond to written questions via email submitted by KING 5 about the Aug. 13 results of the duct-tape analysis or the Sept. 7 presentation to the Hanford Advisory Board.
“When we have a leak at Hanford it’s not just bad news for the contractor, it’s bad news for the entire program, bad news for the environment and it’s bad news for the people of Washington. Everyone should have had a chance to find out what was going on a make a decision. It’s the basis of democratic government. If you’re not providing the information truthfully and on time, you’re not doing your job,” said Kaltofen.