Radioactive waste from Hanford is seeping toward the Columbia

  • Nuclear contamination at Hanford

    Diane Sylvain
  • Attlee Benally in protective clothing at Hanford - Christopher Anderson/Spokesma

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  • Hanford's 28 tanks each hold a million gallons of nuclear waste - Spokesma

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  • Casey Ruud and John Brodeur - Bob Baker/The Spokesma

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  • Single-walled tanks in the 200 Areas at Hanford's plants

    U.S. Department of Energy
 

RICHLAND, Wash. - Casey Ruud and John Brodeur have always stood out in Hanford's take-no-risks nuclear culture.

The safety auditor and the geophysicist made powerful enemies when they uncovered major safety problems a decade ago at the nation's largest plutonium bomb factory, located deep in rural southeastern Washington.

Then in 1994, at the prodding of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Ruud and Brodeur teamed up again, this time on Hanford's riskiest cleanup project, the high-level nuclear waste tanks that hold the deadliest discards of the arms race.

A year later, the two whistleblowers dropped a bombshell of their own: Radioactive waste from some of the biggest leaking tanks had reached groundwater that flows toward the Columbia River, 10 to 15 miles away.

"This affects every project at Hanford. It's huge, and we do not know enough about it," Ruud said in a recent interview.

Their discovery has major implications. It contradicts the views of Hanford managers that leaking tank wastes never traveled far beneath the tanks and never reached groundwater. It also requires a new assessment of the risks to the Columbia, the largest river west of the Mississippi and the lifeblood of agriculture and fishing in the Pacific Northwest.

"The recently acquired data is the most significant environmental finding at Hanford in over a decade," said Tom Carpenter of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project in Seattle.

Now, two U.S. senators want to know more. On June 19, Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and John Glenn of Ohio asked the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office, to find out if the U.S. Department of Energy is doing enough to learn what's happening under the Hanford tank farms.

Good information on what's happening to groundwater just above the water table and beneath the tanks, an area known as the vadose zone, is critical, the senators noted. "If waste from tank leaks and spills and from crib operations is more mobile than suspected, the groundwater at Hanford and the Columbia River are at risk," they wrote, in the letter to the GAO.

Since the Cold War ended, the tanks storing radioactive bomb wastes have been a constant problem for top Energy Department managers. The Hanford tanks "keep me up at night," admitted Thomas Grumbly, the U.S. Department of Energy's former cleanup czar, in 1994.

Grumbly's nightmare is still here, beneath the desert in the middle of the 560-square-mile Hanford site. Leftovers from plutonium production are buried in 177 steel-gray tanks, 149 of them 50-year-old single-wall tanks, 28 of them double-walled tanks built in the '80s. Each tank is covered with desert soil and brimming with enough radioactive goo to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The 55 million gallons of liquids and sludges in the tanks contain an estimated 198 million curies of radiation - nearly four times more than was released in the 1986 Chernobyl accident that killed 31 people and raised cancer risks for millions exposed to the radiation cloud.

Three-quarters of the radioactive material in the tanks is cesium 137, a poison that loses half its power after 33 years. The rest is mostly strontium 90, a highly toxic element which attacks human bone marrow and has a radioactive half-life of 28 years. The tanks also hold dozens of other elements, including a small amount of plutonium, with a half-life of 80 million years.

Some of the plutonium has escaped through cracks and migrated 100 feet below the leaking tanks. Though there's still no final disposal plan for the tank wastes because their contents are so complex and dangerous, cleanup estimates range from $20 to $40 billion. The total Hanford cleanup tab may be $50 billion - or more.

That makes the Hanford tanks the costliest single item in the Energy Department's $227 billion, 75-year cleanup program, according to recent government estimates.

For several decades, more than a third of these huge tanks have burped, rumbled and leaked. Some belched hydrogen and ammonia gas; others are dangerously hot, causing cracks and bulges in the tank walls and floors.

These problems were largely withheld from the public, thanks to national security restrictions on information about making bombs. When the leaks finally became public, Hanford managers maintained the 66 known leaks from the older tanks hadn't spread far.

Brodeur and Ruud discovered that wasn't true: Cesium 137 has seeped 130 feet deep, approaching groundwater at 210 feet flowing toward the Columbia.

Ruud and Brodeur also sparked an investigation which unearthed little-known data in previous Hanford studies. Chromium and radioactive technetium 99 from the tanks have already reached the groundwater, the studies indicated, exceeding federal drinking water standards under one cluster of single-wall tanks known as the SX Tank Farm.

Their findings set off alarm bells at Hanford. A panel of outside experts appointed by the Department of Energy reviewed their work last year, and upheld it. What's happening under the tanks is "poorly understood" but essential to the entire Hanford cleanup effort, the expert panel said.

Computer models that DOE managers use to estimate risks to the public are "based on arguable, unrealistic and sometimes optimistic assumptions," panel members said in a scathing December 1996 statement. "The output of such models is entirely unreliable and best described by the old axiom: garbage in, garbage out."

Further data released early this year confirm that the cesium below the SX Tank Farm didn't get there by leaking into the test holes drilled for tank monitoring, as some Hanford managers suggested last year in critiques of Ruud's and Brodeur's work.

"Nobody wanted to believe us," Brodeur said.

According to a report released last January, the amounts of radioactive cesium under the high-heat SX tanks could be 11 times greater than previously thought.

The estimated volumes range from 56,000 to 111,000 gallons, said Steve Agnew, project leader at Los Alamos, N.M., for a study commissioned by Hanford managers. The DOE's previous estimate, based on a 1965 figure, was only 10,000 gallons. The old tank-leak figures are unreliable "guesstimates' that need to be revised upward, said David Shafer, DOE project manager.

Last May, Brodeur's team found more contamination deep under yet another cluster of old tanks. Long-lived cesium and uranium have seeped "at least" 230 feet under the tank BX 102, one of a dozen single-wall tanks clustered in the BX Tank Farm. BX 102 is five miles closer to the Columbia than the 15 SX tanks where the previous contamination was found.

"We are using new detection equipment to get a handle on the situation," Brodeur said in mid-July.

Tank BX 102, built in 1946, has been partially studied before. It's known to have leaked at least 70,000 gallons of its 530,000-gallon, uranium-laden contents; that the leaks went so deep, however, wasn't previously known.

The radiation may have reached groundwater at 255 feet, but more work is needed to verify that, Brodeur said.

While Ruud and Brodeur pushed for a more aggressive program to track tank leaks in groundwater above the water table, DOE officials resisted; they were preparing a new tank-cleanup plan that didn't include such work. There's still no comprehensive program to address the vadose zone problems in Hanford's cleanup plan. In June, however, DOE announced it would conduct more work in the vadose zone.

Whistleblowers aren't popular

O'Leary's teaming up of Brodeur and Ruud was meant to signal a culture change at Hanford. "We need whistleblowers," she proclaimed.

Ruud had already gone public in 1986 about serious hazards at Hanford's plutonium factories, triggering a top-level government safety review; Brodeur urged Congress in 1989 to order a thorough look at leaks under Hanford's waste tanks.

Their high-profile acts put them on the enemies list of top Hanford managers. They faced hostility, threats and termination, although both finally won legal settlements from the Hanford contractors who harassed them.

In 1996, each received major national awards for their Hanford work: Ruud the $25,000 Cavallo Award for moral courage, and Brodeur the Joe Calloway Award for civic courage.

Despite O'Leary's efforts and their distinguished work, Ruud and Brodeur are no longer a team. Weeks after O'Leary left her cabinet post, Ruud moved back to his previous job in state government, the Washington Department of Ecology's Hanford cleanup office in the Tri-Cities.

"O'Leary and Grumbly supported my work. But now, they're gone," Ruud explained.

The new DOE secretary, Federico Peûa, has not let the issue die; Shafer, a geologist, was picked to succeed Ruud because he had more technical expertise, said Jackson Kinzer, DOE's assistant manager for the tank program.

"You have to credit Casey with making this program visible. But when we got into the technical details, we needed someone with more education," Kinzer said.

Brodeur is still working for a Hanford contractor, though his findings on the tank leaks have gotten only grudging recognition from the U.S. Department of Energy. Last Dec. 17, Hanford officials issued a press release confirming that tank wastes had been detected deep below the tanks.

The news bulletin made no mention of Ruud or Brodeur.

Nuclear debris haunts DOE

Federal resistance to Ruud's and Brodeur's work typifies the troubled history of nuclear waste at Hanford.

Even in the 1940s, soon after Hanford's plutonium fueled the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, some scientists warned that Hanford's handling of deadly wastes would leave a mess the government would regret.

They warned an Atomic Energy Commission advisory committee that the AEC's "interim" solution of storing highly radioactive waste in metal tombs would soon lead to serious hazards. The AEC, the agency that later became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, ignored the warnings in its rush to build bombs; waste wasn't glamorous or career-building, noted Carroll Wilson, a former AEC commissioner, in 1979.

"Nobody got brownie points for caring about nuclear waste," Wilson said. "The AEC neglected the problem."

From World War II to the mid-1980s, Hanford and 16 other weapons sites were shielded by national security rules and did not have to follow the environmental laws that applied to other government agencies and to private business.

The government's stance "was an attitude of neglect bordering on contempt for environmental protection," charged Sen. John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat who has led the recent fight in Congress to reform the DOE.

"What they said, in effect, is 'we're going to build bombs and the environment be damned,' " Glenn said.

As the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, Hanford went on a new tank-building spree. The tanks stored toxic liquid wastes left over from a chemical process that separates plutonium and uranium for nuclear bombs. In gray, windowless cement buildings so large they were nicknamed "Queen Marys," workers oversaw the complex process.

For every kilogram of finished plutonium, reprocessing spewed out more than 340 gallons of liquid, high-level, radioactive wastes mixed with hazardous chemicals, over 55,000 gallons of low to intermediate radioactive wastes and 2.5 million gallons of cooling waters.

This liquid garbage contains a poisonous brew of chemicals, plus cesium, strontium and remnants of plutonium, uranium and other heavy metals, some of which will remain radioactive for millions of years.

Reprocessing also generated nearly 350 billion gallons of mildly contaminated wastewater which was discharged directly to the ground between 1945 and 1991, according to a DOE estimate. That practice, now discontinued, raised Hanford's water table by as much as 75 feet in some places.

Hanford's nuclear garbage accumulated quickly. The first tanks built to store the 1 million gallons of highly radioactive waste produced each year during the Cold War were single-wall. The oldest 149 tanks, built from 1943-1964, are the biggest hazard. Later, 28 double-wall tanks were added, for a total of 177.

The earliest tanks were made of carbon steel because stainless steel was in short supply during World War II. That practice continued, however, for two decades after the war. Acidic reprocessing wastes had to be neutralized so as not to dissolve the tanks. That meant adding lye and water, which increased the volume of the wastes and created new problems: The lye caused the radioactive elements to precipitate out as sludge. The sludge then accumulated at the bottom of the tanks, where the heat buildup caused cracks.

During the early decades of the Cold War, the tanks were still thought of as a "temporary" option, the cheapest alternative while the nation's nuclear arsenal was growing rapidly. No timetable was devised to empty them, and no money was carved out of the defense budget to devise a permanent disposal.

Then, in 1957, the danger of these wastes was dramatically revealed when a Soviet nuclear-waste tank exploded near Kyshtym in the Urals. This Soviet counterpart to Hanford sent a plume of radioactive debris 180 miles downwind. Part of the area is still fenced off, posted with yellow "Danger: Radiation" signs.

There's been no similar catastrophic explosion in a Hanford tank. But some have belched hydrogen gas with enough force to buckle their metal lids, and one, Tank 105A, vented contaminated steam into the atmosphere for 30 minutes after superheated water burst out of a pipe inside the tank in 1967.

Old-timers recalled how the tanks "boiled, bucked and rolled," said Jack Leitsch, a former Westinghouse Hanford tank-farm manager.

"People could feel a tank rumbling if they were standing on top of it," Leitsch said.

When some tanks began to leak in the 1950s, engineers devised a system of "tank farms," with miles of pipe to move the liquids around and allow the radioactivity to decay before moving it back to the original tanks. Some of this equipment also leaked, spilled liquids, and contaminated workers.

At last, environmental laws

In the 1980s, the nuclear arms race got a second wind during the Reagan administration. Hanford's old reprocessing plants fired up, and the wastes began to accumulate once again. Worried about the environmental consequences, Washington state officials insisted for the first time that Hanford waste-disposal practices conform to federal and state law, including the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

The Department of Energy responded by invoking the Atomic Energy Act, which allows the weapons agency to sidestep stricter environmental laws in the name of national security. But this sparked a backlash, including the birth of grassroots groups that pressed for full disclosure of Hanford's environmental secrets.

In the mid-1980s, a series of dramatic events fueled public outrage about Hanford, including:

* The Chernobyl nuclear accident, which focused world attention on nuclear safety, especially on reactors such as Hanford's N Reactor, which, like the Soviet reactor, lacked a protective containment dome;

* A 1985 order to DOE from a federal judge to start complying with the nation's environmental laws. Government safety investigations soon focused on Hanford's tank farms;

* A July 1989 General Accounting Office report that approximately 743,000 gallons of high-level waste had leaked from the single-shell tanks, a quarter of a million gallons more than the DOE's studies had reported.

"Although the Energy Department has maintained that the environmental impact of leaks will be extremely low or nonexistent, the studies we reviewed do not provide convincing evidence that this is the case," the GAO noted.

That estimate was later revised upward to approximately 1 million gallons of leaked high-level wastes.

In 1989, Washington state signed a court-supervised cleanup agreement with Hanford officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was the first in the nation.

"At long last, we can begin a massive effort to clean up the 45 years of accumulated chemical and nuclear wastes at Hanford," said former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner the day the agreement was signed.

Part of the cleanup pact was a schedule to empty the tanks of their dangerous contents, turning some of the wastes into glass logs for burial in a nuclear waste repository.

Congress ordered a "watch list" of the most dangerous Hanford tanks in 1990. Four lists were created to highlight the worst risks: flammable gas, organic content, ferrocyanide (added to some of the tanks to precipitate out cesium) and high heat.

Today, the ferrocyanide watch list is closed out, but 38 tanks remain on one or more lists.

Once the Cold War was over, Hanford's cleanup program got off to a very slow start; almost every plan encountered obstacles.

Burial of the single-shell tanks was scrapped after outside experts discovered some could explode. The DOE considered encasing all the milder tank waste in concrete-like grout, then feared there would be so much grout it would spread onto uncontaminated land. The government axed the $200 million grout project. Managers delayed building a $1.7 billion vitrification plant fearing it was too small. Now, a glass plant to encase milder waste is due early in the 21st century, followed by a separate plant for the more toxic waste by 2009.

State officials say they're frustrated by the delays.

"We have been down some very expensive dead-ends," said Dan Silver, deputy director of the Washington Department of Ecology. In eight years the federal government spent $7.5 billion on studies and overhead while little cleanup was accomplished.

The DOE has begun shifting gears again. Its latest, and controversial, plan is to "privatize" much of the tank work by hiring private firms that are supposed to assume much of the risk and are paid for the final product - glass logs to be buried in a government repository.

To John Brodeur, privatizing the tank work without understanding what's going on under the tanks is a mistake. "The biggest risk is, we get down the road five or 10 years and we find the contamination in the vadose zone is not stable."

Karen Dorn Steele has covered Hanford for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, for 12 years.

You can ...
* Call the U.S. Department of Energy, Richland, Wash., DOE Richland Operations Office, 509/372-2731;
* Obtain an executive summary of the Vadose Zone Contamination Issue Expert Panel Report on the Internet at http://www.gov/docs/rl-97-49/summary.htm;
* Obtain the environmental impact statement for the Tank Waste Remediation Program on the Internet at http://www.hanford.gov/eis/twrseis.htm;
* Call the Government Accountability Project's Seattle office, which represents Hanford whistleblowers, at 206/292-2850. GAP's Internet address is http://www.whistleblower.org/gap;
* Call the Washington Department of Ecology's Hanford cleanup program, Kennewick, Wash., 509/735-7581.