RICHLAND, Wash. – Some of the decisions made over the last 40 years at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are coming back to haunt the site’s current managers. A new report out this week examined why a double-hulled tank of radioactive waste recently sprung a leak in its inner shell. That has raised the possibility of having to pump out the waste from the tank.
The tank is called AY-102. And it’s about the size of a house. It’s buried in the sandy soil north of Richland.
The tank’s spilled as much as 520 gallons of radioactive waste into its bowels — but so far, not into the environment. The federal contractor that manages the tank — Washington River Protection Solutions — is preparing for a worst case scenario.
The company’s John Britton says the prospect of an emergency pump out of AY-102 is complicated. He says that tank is filled with heat-producing waste that could become unpredictable if it’s dried out.
“If it was determined that this tank isn’t sound and we need to pump the liquid out of it immediately, we’re prepared to do that," Britton says. "That does carry other operational issues with it. So yeah, it’s going to be difficult.”
And it’s not clear how quickly an emergency pump out could even happen. Cheryl Whalen is a manager with Washington State’s Department of Ecology. The agency oversees cleanup at Hanford. Whalen says pump and equipment breakdowns have slowed work a lot at Hanford.
“In some cases a tank retrieval has taken considerably more than a year. And it’s usually because of a series of problems.”
Another key problem: Where would the waste in that tank go? A board that advises the federal government recommended building new, more robust tanks at Hanford immediately.
Tom Carpenter directs the Seattle-based watchdog Hanford Challenge. He says what went wrong with AY-102, looks to him to be similar to today’s long-delayed and troubled waste treatment plant at Hanford.
“… A little bit scary when you think about the waste treatment plant being built in kind of the same way," Carpenter says. "Poor design, one-of-a-kind facility, evidence of a lot of shoddy construction going on – It’s like wow will we be reading the same kind of report in a couple of years about the waste treatment plant and why it failed?”
Best case: The waste treatment plant is another half-dozen years from start-up. And new tanks are likely several years away. No one’s sure these war-time battleships will hold-on for the process of finding a solution.
On the Web:
Tank 241 AY-102 Leak Assessment Report (US Dept. of Energy)
Hanford's Tank Farms (Hanford.gov)
Workers empty a radioactive waste tank at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Photo courtesy of Hanford contractor Washington River Protection Solutions
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio