At Hanford, the former plutonium production facility located in Eastern Washington, not much takes place without a carefully designed plan. With 56 million gallons of the most highly contaminated nuclear waste on the planet stored in underground tanks at the site, human and environmental health depend on the precise work of Hanford employees and their strict adherence to written procedures.
Documents called Alarm Response Procedures, commonly known as ARPs, spell out what steps need to be taken when an alarm goes off to indicate an anomaly or emergency, such as a release of radioactive particulates into the environment or a leaking tank.
But KING 5 has found that on October 9, 2011, when an alarm sounded to alert the monitoring staff that -– for the first time ever -- one of 28 double-shell tanks holding the worst waste at Hanford might be leaking nuclear waste, the shift manager on duty couldn’t find the ARP that would give detailed information about what to do. The manager hand wrote in his log book that the tank’s leak detection system “is in alarm,” but he is “unable to find ARP”
The day after the alarm sounded, the private company hired by the U.S. Department of Energy to manage the underground waste tanks at Hanford -- Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) -- sent veteran instrument technician Mike Geffre out to inspect the equipment monitoring the tank, called AY-102. Geffre found the leak detection system was in proper working order -- meaning the alarm that sounded on the 9th was not false. But after confirming the alarm, Geffre had no ARP to consult to see what action should be taken.
"I thought there would be a whole protocol of investigation, looking to see what was going on, maybe putting cameras in and looking to see where the waste was coming from. I just assumed that was in place," said Geffre. "Well, there wasn't any of that in place. There was nothing. No plan. Zippo."
The company reported to federal and state regulators that its experts believed rainwater, not nuclear waste, had seeped into the space between the tank’s primary and secondary shells. WRPS managers noted that it had been raining in the Tri-Cities area for several days and suggested that the rain must have triggered a false alarm.
In addition, WRPS officials reported that radiation readings recorded by the leak detection equipment weren't out of the ordinary for this particular tank.
But the alarms recorded in October 2011 were just the first of several red flags that went up over the next 10 months that highly radioactive sludge was leaking out of a huge tank's primary wall and into a space not engineered to hold the material. It would take a full year for WRPS and the Department of Energy to confirm to the public that the tank had in fact cracked, allowing nuclear waste to ooze out.
No plan stalled action
Nuclear science and policy experts told KING 5 that the lack of an ARP -- a roadmap on how to investigate what exactly put the equipment into alarm -- was a grave error.
“If you have a procedure in place for everything except for the big critical failure, I don’t think it’s a failure of vision. I think it’s a decision. You’ve decided this is something that is not going to happen,” said Boston-based civil engineer and radiation expert Marco Kaltofen, who’s traveled to Hanford many times to conduct research.
“The problem with hazardous waste of all kinds, radioactive wastes, is that when you sit on them the problems get worse. Every day you wait, it’s more material that you have to dispose of, more stuff gets contaminated and the problem gets worse and more expensive and harder to control. That was a big mistake,” said Kaltofen.
"They've wasted money, they've wasted time. We can't afford to do those things out at Hanford. It's too urgent of a problem. All of us have too much invested in that clean up to succeed for that kind of mentality to prevail," said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog organization Hanford Challenge.
WRPS insists it had response plan
Media specialists for WRPS told KING 5 in April that that a written alarm response plan existed when the first leak warning sounded in October 2011.
"There is and has been an established Alarm Response Procedure (ARP) for the ENRAF (leak detection) system,” wrote company representatives.
But KING 5's thorough review of all WRPS Alarm Response Procedures connected to double-shell tanks found no plan.
“Well they lied to you then,” said Dick Heggen, a retired Washington State Department of Ecology employee who served as a state compliance officer at Hanford.
“They failed miserably, and at this point the Department of Ecology and the Department of Energy need to get on their case and make sure they have one (an ARP) as soon as possible. I would say in a week or less. If they don’t, when another one comes around or if this one gets bigger what are they going to do?” said Heggen.
After KING 5 briefed WRPS officials on Thursday that a report on the lack of an ARP would be broadcast the following day, WRPS External Affairs Manager Jerry Holloway wrote to KING 5 to say he needed to make a clarification to the company’s original statement:
“Procedures for responding to ENRAF annulus alarms were in place as part of two separate tank farm operating procedures in October 2011. An additional Alarm Response Procedure (ARP) was not necessary because AY/AZ farm ENRAFs alarm to the Tank Monitor and Control System (TMACS) surveillance system which is monitored 24 hours a day and includes alarm response procedures. A second procedure also covered follow up response to ENRAF alarms."
KING 5 confirmed with employees who work closely with the leak detection systems at Hanford that the company’s statement to KING 5 is not accurate. Instead, only in June 2012 -- eight months after the first leak alarm -- were two additions made to the company’s manuals about the leak detection alarm. And to date, an ARP describing actions to be taken when leaked waste material is detected in a double-shell tank's annulus space still has not been written.
“This could have been totally avoided if they would have listened to me about two years ago,” said WRPS technician Mike Geffre. Geffre told KING 5 he urged WRPS managers to write and put into action an ARP for this particular alarm in 2010.
“I told them we were not prepared in case one day one of our double shell tanks really did have a leak. We calibrate this equipment all of the time. Sometimes it goes into alarm because the plummet (detection equipment) has drifted out of position. But what if it was the real thing? You can’t assume it’s always going to be a false reading. I mentioned it more than once and thought it had been taken care of. I was wrong,” said Geffre.
Quick action to address a leak in AY-102 was important given the nature of the high-level waste the tank contains, according to Bob Alvarez, a former nuclear policy adviser to President Clinton. Tank AY-102 contains massive amounts of the nuclear by-product Strontium-90 –- more than any other tank at Hanford. Strontium-90 sinks to the bottom of waste tanks and generates heat so hot it boils the material around it.
“It’s been known for over 50 years at Hanford that high heat loads at the bottom of tanks cause them to leak and crack. This is not unknown,” said Alvarez.
The contents of AY-102 will eat through the secondary tank liner -– the final barrier between the toxic sludge and the environment -- faster than any other material at the site.
“There’s an enormous amount of decay heat in that tank. It’s like having a grill the size of a basketball court lit up with gas going on constantly,” said Alvarez.
WRPS holds the contract to manage all 177 underground nuclear waste tanks at Hanford. Twenty-eight of them, including Tank AY-102, are double-shell tanks that are considered the most robust and reliable tanks for keeping nuclear waste safe until technology is developed to permanently dispose of the materials. Now that one double-shell tank is confirmed to be a leaker, experts consulted by KING 5 said being prepared with an ARP is more important than ever.
"If you're alarming that, testing that, and you don't have a plan for when you find something? Why are we out there in the first place? Everybody go home. Forget the whole thing," said Kaltofen. “You have to know what to do in advance of finding a leak. If you don’t do that, how are you going to handle the rest of Hanford?”