The first ever double-shell tank to have leaked at Hanford may be in far worse condition than anyone imagined. Hanford workers conducting routine maintenance on the tank Thursday were shocked to find readings of radioactivity from material outside the tank. Until now leaked nuclear sludge had only been detected in what's known as the tank's annulus - the hollow safety space between the tank's two walls.
The tank, known as AY-102, has been at the center of a KING 5 investigation for months. The underground carbon steel vessel holds 865,000 gallons of the most chemically contaminated, thermally hot, corrosive and radioactive material at the site.
The U.S. Department of Energy, in a unique move, issued an email late Thursday night about the turn of events.
"On Thursday, June 20, 2013, workers detected an increased level of contamination during a routine removal of water and survey of (AY-102's) leak detection pit...The source of contamination is not yet verified, but may be an indication of a leak from the AY-102 tank’s secondary containment," wrote Lori Gamache, spokesperson for the DOE's Office of River Protection (ORP) in Richland.
The leak detection pit is located underneath the massive tank and has contact with the soil.
Just last week the Dept. of Energy submitted a detailed guide to the state of Washington on how to handle AY-102's leak in what's called the government's "pumping plan." The plan calls for the tank to be pumped of its contents by the year 2019. An initial review of the course of action appeared inadequate to state officials. State and federal law call for a leaking nuclear waste tank to be emptied and deemed unusable within 24 hours, or "whatever is practicable" of the detection of a leak.
Now that the tank's condition may be far worse than previously known, state and federal officials are on the fast track to find solutions.
"ORP has notified the Washington state Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and convened an engineering analysis team to conduct additional sampling and video inspection to further assess the elevated radiation levels and determine the source of the contamination," said Gamache.
The KING 5 Investigators, in a multi-part investigation, "Hanford's Dirty Secrets" exposed that the federal government's contractor in charge of all 177 underground storage tanks at the site, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), failed to investigate scientific evidence of the leak for nearly a year before conducting a thorough inspection in August 2012. Despite signs of the leak and advice from veteran employees that the tank was compromised and leaking nuclear by-products in 2011, WRPS and the DOE made the leak public in October 2012.
In addition, KING 5 revealed WRPS wasted millions of tax dollars on the tank during the months signs of the leak were discounted by managers. Instead of confronting evidence that the tank was broken, WRPS forged ahead with engineering, design, and equipment procurement work to upgrade the tank to eventually be a waste feed delivery source to the site's Waste Treatment Plant. Now that work is useless because of the tank's condition.
On Wednesday the Obama administration's top environmental boss, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, visited Hanford for the first time since his confirmation to see first-hand the country's most contaminated site. He assured reporters before his tour that the AY-102 leak was safely contained in the annulus and that the leak had not grown. Photos of the leaked toxic sludge obtained by KING 5 on Thursday showed an increase of bright green, wet leaked material from what had been documented by workers the week before.
AY-102 is one of 28 double shell underground nuclear storage tanks at Hanford. These are newer, sturdier tanks than the older single shell tanks at the site, six of which are known to currently be leaking nuclear waste into the environment. The double-shell tanks were hoped to be a saving grace for Hanford -- a way to safely contain 56-million gallons of waste from decades of plutonium production until the treatment plant was finished.
That plant is riddled with technical problems and cost overruns. It's uncertain when or if the current planned plant will be operational.