Nuclear Pollution

Cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford: Secrecy, delays and budget debates

Whistleblower alarm

Red flags have also been raised over the quality of construction of the new treatment facilities.

In 2010, Walt Tamosaitis, a senior manager at a subcontractor designing the pretreatment plant, URS Corp., alerted his superiors and managers at lead contractor Bechtel to a risk of hydrogen gas explosions that could bend and burst pipes in the plant, spraying radioactive fluids . He also pointed out that radioactive sludge could clog the pipes and tanks in the plant, increasing the chance of uncontrolled releases of radiation. And he raised the issue of corrosion causing leaks in the pretreatment plant.

Tamosaitis’ superiors told the Energy Department that the design problems were fixed as of July 1, 2010 — over Tamosaitis’ protests bonus, but in time for Bechtel to collect a $5 million from the department.

For raising the alarm, he was demoted and exiled to an insignificant offsite job, an alleged Tamosaitis in a lawsuit against Bechtel. He alleged illegal retaliation, eventually reaching a $4.1 million settlement with the company. Meanwhile, in 2011 and 2012, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a technical advisory body monitoring DOE, plus the Government Accounting Office, confirmed Tamosaitis’ concerns.

In 2015, the Energy Department announced that it would not have the entire complex operational by 2022, the deadline at the time. Department officials pointed to the same issues Tamosaitis had identified in 2010.

Also on hold is construction of the pretreatment plant — a prerequisite to the high-level waste glassification project, which is scheduled to begin production in 2023, according to the current state and federal agreement.

What the future holds

The US Department of Energy has been giving contradictory signals about new plans for dealing with some of the high-level waste.

In June 2019, DOE announced it has the authority to reclassify some high-level wastes into low-activity wastes based on how radioactive they are. A December 2020 DOE report to Congress said this measure could be applied to its sites at Savannah River, South Carolina; Idaho Falls; and Hanford. So far, it is being tried only at Savannah River.

“DOE sort of granted itself the authority to do that reclassifying,” said Suzanne Dahl, tank waste treatment manager of the Washington Department of Ecology’s nuclear waste program. Like Wiesman and Carpenter, she has worked on Hanford issues for more than 30 years.

“We’re not convinced of any need to reclassify any of the high-level wastes,” said Ecology Department spokesman Randy Bradbury.

Besides protesting the decision in 2019, the state Department of Ecology and the Washington Attorney General’s Office — in a Feb.26, 2021, letter to DOE — objected again to DOE’s having that reclassification authority.

“We believe this rule lays the groundwork for the department to abandon significant amounts of radioactive waste in Washington State precipitously close to the Columbia River,” the attorney general wrote in the letter, which was also signed by representatives of the Yakama Indian Nation and three environmental organizations. They wrote that redefining the waste fails to hold the Energy Department and the federal government responsible for adequately cleaning up the waste left over from the establishment of the US nuclear arsenal.

At Hanford, the wastes were classified as “high level” based on where they originated in the Cold War plutonium process. DOE wants to change that to the radioactivity levels of the waste. A December 2020 DOE report to Congress said this reclassification could cut the volume of high-level waste at Hanford by two-thirds.

The list of challenges goes on

To Wiegman, the big question is how well the direct-feed low-activity waste plant will work when it goes online with real tank waste. “I wouldn’t make any predictions until I see a run,” he said.

The project is complicated and likely to require them to employ untried technology to solve problems like how they will replace and repair parts in the melting facility if it will be so highly radioactive that no humans can safely enter the main chamber after glassification begins. Remote control robots will likely be involved.

For example, the two melters in the 2023 low-activity waste plant are expected to last five years, according to DOE. Then it will take several months of remote-control work to replace a burnt-out melter.

But the pretreatment plant has been in limbo for almost nine years with nothing nailed down in timetables or budgets to finish it.

Technical challenges stopped construction of the pretreatment plant in 2012 when it was 40% finished, which is where it stands today. Bechtel and DOE have come up with solutions to the technical challenges, but have not done the actual nuts-and-bolts engineering work to implement them, a 2020 GAO report said. The federal report said part of the project is already well over budget and way behind the deadline.

“We invested a lot of money out there, and it is getting older every day,” Wiegman said.

The financial and technical challenges are clearly intertwined. The 2020 report makes it clear that the DOE’s highest funding priority is to begin the glassification process for low-activity wastes as soon as possible, bypassing the pretreatment facility for now. But if that is the new plan, stakeholders wonder what is the plan for dealing with the more radioactive waste.

“If they have a plan, they are not sharing it with anyone. You start to suspect they don’t have a plan to deal with high-level wastes,” Carpenter said.

In written response to Crosscut’s questions, DOE said it is studying alternative ways to deal with the low-activity wastes, and confirmed that the high-level radioactive wastes will be glassified.

Also in its December 2020 report to Congress, DOE said up to 80% of Hanford’s tank waste could be converted into cementlike grout — skipping the whole glassification process. Grouting that much waste could save up to $210 billion over the next few decades, the report said.

Reclassifying a significant amount of high-level waste into low-activity waste is key to reaching that 80%, the report said.

Carpenter opposes the grout concept.

His reasons include DOE has not said how it reached the $210 billion savings estimate; DOE has not mapped out budgets or schedules for setting up a grouting approach; and the technology is not nailed down.

Carpenter zeroed in on DOE’s 2020 report to Congress, saying there is no mention of taking the waste out of the tanks before mixing it with grout. Accordingly, there is a loophole in which tank wastes could be left inside the tanks, Carpenter argued.

Wiegman believes grouting is inevitable. however. “In my opinion, a lot of this stuff can be safely grouted. … We just need to be smart about how we do it,” he said. A key question is what radioactive substances will be locked up in the grout, he said.

In its written responses to Crosscut, DOE wrote that no high-level wastes will be grouted and that it is examining several alternatives beyond glassification for dealing with the low-activity wastes.

There is an experimental grouting project at Hanford. A company called Perma-Fix is ​​experimenting with mixing low-activity tank wastes with grout to be shipped to an existing Texas low-level radioactive waste dump site.

So far Perma-Fix did one test run in 2017 with 3 gallons of tank waste, successfully trucking that small sample to a mixed-waste dump in Texas. The second test run, involving 2,000 gallons, is on hold pending completion of the “holistic talks” between the DOE and the state Ecology Department.

DOE sees grouting as a possible alternative to classifying some low-activity wastes.Wiegman sees grouting as a way to move low-activity out of Hanford, which would be politically important to start cleaning up the site.

“We need to get some stuff out of here, or we’ll end up with it permanently staying here,” Wiegman said.

Ultimately, this project, originally scheduled to be finished this decade, will likely be completed in the latter half of this century. In other words, it could take 70 to 75 years (mid-1990s to 2069) to deal with the 56 million gallons of radioactive tank waste created by 42 years of manufacturing plutonium.

“This is a generational problem,” Wiegman said.

The state Department of Ecology’s Dahl frets about the likelihood of the high-level waste treatment plant going online by the mid-2030s.

“I don’t have another 30 years in me. It’s sad that this is going to be finished by someone else,” she said.

CORRECTION: The spelling of Stephen Wiegman has been corrected throughout this story.

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