Concerns over gas build ups in Hanford tanks

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by GARY CHITTIM / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on April 2, 2013 at 8:33 PM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 2 at 8:34 PM

The Department of Energy was warned in a letter last September that there were not adequate safeguards in place to prevent build ups of flammable gasses inside nuclear waste storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The letter from the congressionally appointed Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DFNSB), points out what board members feel are inadequate systems to prevent the possible release of flammable gasses. 

According to the (DNFSB), “The current control strategy does not include any measures to periodically release the trapped gases in a controlled manner to preclude the accumulation of flammable concentrations.”

The previously classified report became public Tuesday. It included scenarios it felt could lead to flammable releases that would “have considerable radiological consequences, endanger personnel, contaminate portions of the Tank Farms, and seriously disrupt the waste cleanup mission.”

The report specifically refers to systems on Hanford’s newer, double shelled tanks which hold some of the most hazardous mixtures of nuclear and chemical wastes leftover from production of nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War.

At least one of those tanks is showing signs of leaking from the interior wall. Hydrogen and other gasses are constantly being generated from the waste inside the tanks, which are ventilated to prevent volatile build ups.

The report summarizes that “at this time, DOE does not have a means to provide alternate ventilation if the existing ventilation system becomes inoperable. The hazards posed by flammable gas releases in DSTs and the challenges they pose to any ventilation system are directly proportional to the volume of flammable gas retained within the DST wastes.”

The Department of Energy released a statement which counters the report by saying, in part, “All DSTs are actively ventilated, which means they have blowers and fans to prevent hydrogen gas build-up. These ventilation systems are monitored to ensure they are operating as intended.”

The follow is both the report and DOE’s response:

DNFSB Report:

RECOMMENDATION 2012·2 TO THE SECRETARY OF ENERGY

Hanford Tank Farms Flammable Gas Safety Strategy

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2286a(a)(5)

Atomic Energy Act of 1954, As Amended

Dated: September 28, 2012

Background

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) believes that current operations at

the Hanford Tank Farms require safety-significant active ventilation of double-shell tanks

(DSTs) to ensure the removal of flammable gas from the tanks’ headspace. A significant

flammable gas accident would have considerable radiological consequences, endanger personnel,

contaminate portions of the Tank Farms, and seriously disrupt the waste cleanup mission.

Further, the Board believes that actions are necessary to install real time monitoring to measure

tank ventilation flowrates as well as upgrade other indication systems used to perform safetyrelated

functions.

On August 5,2010, the Board sent a letter to the Department of Energy (DOE) outlining

issues related to the safety strategy for flammable gas scenarios at the Hanford Tank Farms. In

its letter, the Board identified that the safety analyses for accident scenarios used non-bounding

values for (1) the radiological inventory of the tanks and (2) the amount of waste that could be

released in a major accident. Notwithstanding these non-conservatisms, DOE’s safety analyses

show that all of the DSTs generate flammable gas in sufficient quantities to reach the lower

flammability limit (LFL) for hydrogen. Further, many of the tanks contain sufficient quantities

of gas trapped in the waste such that the LFL could be exceeded if the gas were spontaneously

released, which is possible under both normal operating and accident conditions. The current

control strategy does not include any measures to periodically release the trapped gases in a

controlled manner to preclude the accumulation of flammable concentrations.

DOE’s safety analyses show that the potential flammable gas scenarios warrant a credited

safety control due to the dose consequences to workers and the public. Accordingly, the

ventilation systems for the DSTs were previously classified as safety-significant and credited in

the documented safety analysis for the Tank Farms to address flammable gas scenarios. The

revision of the safety analysis approved by DOE on January 21, 2010, and implemented on

March 30,2010, reduced the DST ventilation systems from safety-significant to defense-in-depth

and replaced them with a specific administrative control (SAC) for flammable gas monitoring.

In its August letter, the Board noted that DOE’s SAC for flammable gas monitoring

exhibited a number of weaknesses that collectively rendered it inadequate as a safety control.

The reliance on an administrative control in lieu of an engineered feature is also contrary to

DOE’s established hierarchy of controls as well as sound engineering practice. Further, the

Board noted that a number of other installed systems that are (1) necessary to provide accurate

and reliable indications of abnormal conditions associated with flammable gas events, an.d

(2) serve as a direct input to determining whether an operator action is required were not

appropriately classified in accordance with their safety function.

In response to these issues, DOE, in a letter dated February 25,2011, informed the Board

that it had revised its decision to downgrade the DST ventilation systems and would take action

to restore the systems to their former safety-significant status. Additionally, DOE indicated that

the level indication systems for the DST annuli and the double contained receiver tank would be

upgraded to safety-significant.

During the last year, the Board reviewed DOE’s progress in meeting these commitments

and addressing the Board’s safety concerns. The Board noted that while some improvements

had been made to the SAC used for flammable gas monitoring, it remained inadequate as a

credited safety control. The SAC is less reliable than an engineered feature, remains susceptible

to undetectable false low readings, and lacks independent verification.

Although DOE maintains a commitment to upgrading the DST ventilation systems and

other installed non-safety-related instrumentation used to perform safety functions, the Board has

concluded that no progress has been made in these areas, and the schedule for upgrades

continues to slip. The latest schedule, outlined in a letter to the Board dated April 2, 2012,

reflects a commitment to completing the upgrades to three of the five DST ventilation systems

by fiscal year 2014. During the Board’s June 2012 review, DOE indicated that even this was no

longer a realistic schedule. DOE’s current path forward is to upgrade only one of the DST

ventilation systems (AY/AZ Tank Farm) by fiscal year 2015 to support mixer pump testing that

is currently anticipated in 2016. No near-term procurement or installation plans are in place for

the four other DST ventilation systems. Similarly, no plans or activities are proposed to upgrade

the installed non-safety instrumentation systems being used in safety-related applications (e.g.,

the level indication systems for the DST annuli and the double container receiver tank).
Conclusions

The Board believes that DOE needs to upgrade the DST ventilation systems and other

instrumentation systems used for safety-related functions at the Hanford Tank Farms. Further,

the continued reliance on an inadequate SAC for flammable gas control presents an unnecessary

risk to safety. At this time, DOE does not have a means to provide alternate ventilation if the

existing ventilation system becomes inoperable. The hazards posed by flammable gas releases in

DSTs and the challenges they pose to any ventilation system are directly proportional to the

volume of flammable gas retained within the DST wastes. Reducing the current inventories of

flammable gases retained in the DST waste and keeping them small would reduce the future

hazards posed by gas release events.
 

Recommendation

Accordingly, the Board recommends that DOE:

1.    Take near-term action to restore the classification of the DST ventilation systems to safety-significant. In the process, determine the necessary attributes of an adequate

2

active ventilation system that can deliver the required flow rates within the time

frame necessary to prevent and mitigate the site-specific flammable gas hazards at the

Hanford Tank Farms.

2.    Take near-term action to install safety-significant instrumentation for real-time monitoring of the ventilation exhaust flow from each DST.

3.    Take near-term action to upgrade the existing installed non-safety-related equipment that is being used to fulfill safety functions at the Hanford Tank Farms to an appropriate safety classification. This includes instrumentation and control equipment whose indications are necessary for operators to take action to accomplish necessary safety functions.

4.    Identify compensatory measures in case any existing DST ventilation systems become unavailable at the Hanford Tank Farms.

5.    Evaluate means to reduce the existing inventory of retained flammable gases in. a controlled manner. Since these gases will continue to be generated until the tank contents are processed, evaluate methods to reduce the future retention of flammable gases in these tanks or to periodically mix them to prevent the future accumulation of flammable gas inventories that could cause the tank headspace to exceed the LFL if rapidly released.

The Board urges the Secretary to avail himself of the authority under the Atomic Energy Act (42 U.S.C. § 2286d(e)) to “implement any such recommendation (or part of any such recommendation) before, on, or after the date on which the Secretary transmits the implementation plan to the Board under this subsection.’


Peter S. Winokur, Ph.D., Chairman

 

Department of Energy response:
All DSTs are actively ventilated, which means they have blowers and fans to prevent hydrogen gas build-up. These ventilation systems are monitored to ensure they are operating as intended. Additionally, consistent with the DNFSB recommendation, for even greater safety, DOE instituted an improved testing and monitoring system to allow for direct monitoring of the tank ventilation system in February. DOE is absolutely committed to ensuring the safety of Hanford’s underground tanks.


 

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