State ready to take action over leaking Hanford nuclear waste tank

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on June 3, 2013 at 10:27 PM

Updated Saturday, Dec 14 at 5:39 PM

Washington state officials say they can take several actions, including filing a lawsuit, if the U.S. Department of Energy fails to deliver an acceptable plan for fixing or emptying a leaking double-shell tank at the Hanford Site.

Energy has promised to deliver a plan by June 14, but if it fails to meet the state's expectations, one option is to file a lawsuit againt the federal government, according to Maia D. Bellon, director of the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Bellon said the lack of transparency will no longer be tolerated by the state.

“I’m currently getting legal advice from the attorney general’s office who is my legal advisor on these issues,” said Bellon. “We need to be putting measures into place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Bellon said state officials are upset that the federal government and the private company monitoring the leaking tank failed to disclose the results of August 2012 tests that showed dangerous waste seeping from the tank, which holds 867,000 gallons of radioactive sludge.

"My full expectation from the federal government is that we receive information in a timely fashion and that it's transparent," said Maia D. Bellon, who was tapped in February by Gov. Jay Inslee to head Ecology.

Bellon said state officials were not happy that they learned key details of the tank leak investigation from watching KING 5 News' continuing series of reports on 241-AY-102, the first-ever double-shell nuclear waste tank to leak at Hanford.

The delay in disclosing information occurred even though state regulators at Hanford repeatedly asked to be updated on the tank's status, according to a Department of Ecology spokesperson.

“Ecology believes DOE [U.S. Department of Energy] should have been more forthcoming with the sampling results. We were told that the ‘preliminary’ sample was too small to be conclusive and that more, larger-sized samples were being taken in September. Ecology asked repeatedly for the sample results. We also heard about the August sample with the high rad (radioactive) reading, but could not confirm that,” said Dieter Bohrmann, communications manager for Ecology's Nuclear Waste Program.

Ecology is one of two government agencies with responsibility for overseeing the multi-decade cleanup at Hanford, as established by a 1989 agreement with the federal government. Any problems at Hanford, including tank leaks, are supposed to be disclosed to Ecology as soon as possible by Hanford officials.

That requirement was not met after tests were conducted on 241-AY-102 last August. Internal emails written by scientists working for Washington River Protection Solutions -- the DOE contractor managing the tank farm -- show that the August test results were consistent with nuclear sludge leaking from the main tank. Duct tape used to collect samples gave off extremely high levels of radiation, and tests showed the tape was contaminated with the radioactive isotopes Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Plutonium 239/240 and Americium.

Even though the test results were in hand by August 13, weeks later federal officials assured Ecology officials and members of the Hanford Advisory Board that further testing was needed and that the material could be a variety of things including rainwater or carbonate build up.

At a September 7 meeting of the Hanford Advisory Board, Tom Fletcher, a Department of Energy manager in charge of Hanford's tank farms, downplayed leak worries by noting that the camera used to take photos of the tank space was contamination free after being retrieved by technicians. Representatives from the state Department of Ecology attended the meeting as well.

"Camera equipment has been removed in all cases without incident. When I say without incident, it's that no contamination on the equipment itself, so we're not seeing any airborne contamination flying around as we're doing this," Fletcher said.

But what Fletcher didn't tell the group was that the cameras used for tank inspections are never contaminated, as they are covered with a protective sleeve to ensure the expensive equipment remains contamination free and can be used again.

Federal regulations administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dictate quick action in case of a nuclear waste tank leak. According to 40 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 264.196, a leaking tank "must be removed from service immediately" and any waste inside should be removed "within 24 hours after detection of the leak ... [or if] that is not possible, at the earliest practicable time, remove as much of the waste as is necessary to prevent further release of hazardous waste."

Hanford sources confirmed to KING that the tank continues to leak.

Federal rules give tank managers some deadline leeway in situations demanding extreme safety protocols. But in the case of 241-AY-102, more than 18 months has passed since the first signs of a leak were spotted. To date, no plan has been submitted for how to decommission the tank. Last month, the Department of Energy wrote to Ecology promising to deliver that plan by June 14.

The state may pursue legal action against the federal government if Ecology believes the plan fails to adequately address the severity of the problems with 241-AY-102.

"Let me be very clear, the timeliness and how this has been responded to is unacceptable to the state of Washington," Bellon told KING 5. “The Department of Energy knows that I have tools available to me and I’m going to keep all of those options available if an appropriate response isn’t provided to us on June 14 about a future resolution and remedy to this leaking tank situation.”

Earlier this year after leaks in several Hanford single-shell tanks were disclosed, Gov. Inslee declared a "zero tolerance policy" for radioactive leaks and complained about the time it took the Department of Energy to inform the state.

"One of the reasons this is disturbing news is we were told this problem was dealt with years ago and was under control," Inslee said at the time.

Similarly, regarding the leak in double-shell tank AY-102, Bellon said she was "disturbed about the delay in the timing of getting that information" from the Department of Energy.

"I believe that the federal government has not just a legal but a moral obligation to clean up the Hanford site," Bellon told KING 5. "Our state has inherited this legacy waste that is very critical and we are owed, the people of the state of Washington, a cleanup that is expeditious and safe."

Read and watch the full series, Hanford's Dirty Secrets.

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