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.”
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.