Hanford's Dirty Secrets
KING 5 began reporting in 2013 on chemical leaks and government violations at Hanford, a 586-square mile government area in south central Washington.
Hanford was created in World War II for plutonium production and continued until the 1980s. A clean-up effort of the 56 million gallons of leftover toxic waste has been underway since then. Billions have been spent, but it is still uncertain how the worst waste will be treated.
RELATED: What is Hanford?
However, KING 5 discovered that the clean-up timeline wasn’t the only concern with the effort. The government failed to disclose a leaking tank, and clean-up workers were getting sick from toxic fumes venting out of the tanks.
The 2014 series lead to the Washington attorney general filing suit against the government to force better worker safety practices.
This series, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets, focused on how Dept. of Energy officials, along with officials from a private contractor, hid from the public and Washington State the fact that nuclear waste had started to leak from a 1 million gallon tank.
The tank in question is AY-102. “AY” refers to a specific tank farm at Hanford, and 102 is the number assigned to it. Some tanks, like the two AY tanks have two shells – an inner shell that holds the waste, and an outer backup shell. The two shells are separated by a narrow hollow space (about 2-3 feet wide) called the annulus.
In October 2012 DOE announced that waste had leaked from AY-102’s inner tank into its annulus. The KING 5 Investigators got involved in the spring of 2013 when Mike Geffre, a longtime Hanford worker got in touch with Susannah Frame. Geffre was upset about the official report on the AY-102 leak, because it said the leak had not been detected until shortly before it was announced in Oct. 2012.
KING 5 ultimately found that Hanford officials knew or should have known the tank was actually leaking liquid into the annulus in 2011. Geffre was the first worker to discover it, yet managers dismissed his evidence.
In effect, a serious leak was kept quiet for a year. During that time, the contractor that manages all the tank farms for DOE – Washington River Protection Solutions – was able to collect payments from the government for work it said would make AY-102 ready to play a role in transferring waste to the Vit Plant.
That work, however, was pointless given the leak. A leaking tank could not be used to store waste before sending it to the Vit Plant.
Sources came to the KING 5 Investigators in March 2014 reporting that workers were being injured by toxic fumes venting out of the tanks. Our investigation found that this problem dates back decades at Hanford.
The tanks have their own internal chemistry – they are hot and active. They are also affected by atmospheric pressure. When the barometer drops or the temperature changes rapidly, the tanks need to vent pressure. When this happens, no radiation escapes, thanks to filters on the vent stacks. But the filters don’t screen out the toxic chemicals.
The venting happens unpredictably. Workers who are not wearing respirators or breathing provided air can become violently ill and permanently disabled.
Our reporting in 2014 introduced viewers to victims from past vapor exposures, showed that the Dept. of Energy and private contractors downplayed the vapor threat for years (mainly to cut costs), and that workers were discouraged from wearing protective gear because it made them work at a slower pace.
As a result of our reporting, the Washington attorney general sued the government to force DOE and contractors to take stronger steps to protect workers. For a while Hanford officials increased safety regimens in the tank farms, but those extra layers of safety have been rolled back in some cases.
Starting in March, we started hearing about three problems at Hanford:
- AY-102 leak got much worse: DOE and WRPS finally started to pump out the tank in February. That work disturbed the tank walls, and much more waste spilled into the tank’s annulus. DOE says the expanded leak was expected and that no waste is leaking out of the tank’s outer wall.
- Readings obtained from AY-101 – the sister tank to AY-102 – suggested that waste was leaking from inside the tank into its annulus. Basically, the readings are very similar to readings obtained from AY-102 in the years before a leak was confirmed. While an AY-101 leak hasn’t been proven by observation, the scientific readings suggest one is happening or is imminent.
- A series of vapor events happened in April and May. Fifty workers reported vapor exposure and were evaluated for any health impacts. The spate of vapor incidents suggests safety protocols that came after KING’s 2014 series aren’t being followed … or larger problems are at play.