A leak in a massive nuclear waste storage tank at the Hanford Site has expanded significantly, KING 5 learned this weekend.
After leak detector alarms sounded early Sunday morning, crews at Hanford lowered a camera into the two-foot-wide space between the tank's inner and outer walls. They discovered 8.4 inches of radioactive and chemically toxic waste sitting in a spot it was never intended to be.
“This is catastrophic. This is probably the biggest event to ever happen in tank farm history. The double shell tanks were supposed to be the saviors of all saviors (to hold waste safely from people and the environment),” said former Hanford worker Mike Geffre.
The U.S. Department of Energy and The Washington Department of Ecology said at this point there is no sign that the waste has leaked into the environment. They did say the waste is now one step closer to the ground surrounding the tank.
"This was always a potential with this tank, that as you got towards the bottom, you would disturb whatever was blocking the leak and it might get a little worse," Washington Department of Ecology Cleanup Section Mangaer Cheryl Whalen said.
Geffre is the worker who first discovered that the tank, known as AY-102, was failing in 2011. In a 2013 series, “Hanford’s Dirty Secrets," the KING 5 Investigators exposed that the government contractor in charge of the tanks, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), ignored Geffre’s findings for nearly a year. The company finally admitted the problem in 2012.
Until now, the leak found by Geffre was very slow. The liquid would almost immediately dry up, leaving a salt-like substance on the floor of the two-foot space between the tank's walls, called the annulus.
Approximately three weeks ago, work began to pump out the contents of AY-102, which has the capacity to hold one million gallons of the deadly waste. The state of Washington has been pressuring the federal government, which owns Hanford, to pump out AY-102 for three-and-a-half years because of the cracking and slow leaking discovered by Geffre in 2011. Sources told KING the disturbance caused by the pumping must have exacerbated the leak: essentially blowing a hole in the aging tank allowing the material to leak more quickly into the outer shell.
Tank AY-102 is one of 28 double-shell tanks at Hanford (there are 177 underground tanks total) holding nuclear byproducts from nearly four decades of plutonium production on the Hanford Nuclear Site, located near Richland. Initially the plutonium was used to fuel the bombed dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II.
Plutonium production continued throughout the Cold War. Since 1989 the work at Hanford has focused solely on cleanup – the most difficult being getting rid of the liquid waste left behind that threatens the health of people, wildlife and the environment, including the nearby Columbia River.
The new leak poses problems on several fronts. The outer shell of AY-102 does not have the exhaust or filtration system needed to keep the dangerous gases created by the waste in check. Workers have been ordered to wear full respiratory safety gear in the area, but the risk remains.
“The hazards to workers just went up by a factor of 10,” said Geffre.
In addition, the breakdown calls into question the viability of three other double-shell tanks at Hanford that have the exact design of AY-102.
“The primary tanks weren't designed to stage waste like this for so many years,” said a current worker. “There’s always the question, ‘Are the outer shells compromised’”?
The accumulation of waste in the outer shell also means the deadliest substance on earth is that much closer to the ground surrounding the tank. And currently there is no viable plan in place to take care of it.
“It makes me sad that they didn’t believe me that there was a problem in 2011,” said Geffre. “I wish they would have listened to me and reacted faster. Maybe none of this would be happening now. It’s an example of a culture at Hanford of ‘We don’t have problems here. We’re doing just fine.’ Which is a total lie,” said Geffre.
Washington Department of Ecology officials said crews have check the “leak detection pits and said the waste has not made it there yet.
"This event this weekend doesn't change anything. But yes, it's just one more 'yes the tanks are failing,' " Whalen said.
The Washington Department of Ecology released a statement saying there is no public risk at this time and staff are expected to finish setting up a pump to transfer the waste back to the main storage tank by the end of Monday.