RICHLAND, Wash. – On the banks of the Columbia River, miles of open land sit undeveloped behind barbed wire fences. A handful of mysterious structures dot the landscape, remnants from the early days of the Cold War. Passing by the old Hanford nuclear production complex can feel like a journey into the past.
Known simply as Hanford, workers here produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic bomb and for many of the nation’s current nuclear warheads. The site was first developed in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project and ceased plutonium production nearly 50 years later, leaving behind 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste. Spanning 586 square miles, it is now ground zero for the largest cleanup project in America.
For 27 years, Mike Geffre was part of that effort, working in an area known as the tank farms: 177 massive underground storage tanks, which hold up to 1 million gallons each of the country’s most toxic nuclear waste.
In October 2011, Geffre found the first leak in a double-shell tank, something that wasn’t supposed to happen. Dangerous radioactive waste in a tank called AY-102 had leaked into a space between the tank’s inner and outer shell, called the annulus. No waste had reached the environment yet, but the discovery proved that earlier assumptions about the safety of double-shell tanks were wrong. By law, the leak required immediate action.
“I expected something immediately to happen,” Geffre said. “I expected that there was this process in place, above my level, that once I give this information that there would be [an] immediate process for getting the equipment in place and start getting ready to pump it out.”
Mike Geffre is still feeling the effects of working on the cleanup effort at Hanford.
But Geffre said his employer, the government contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, refused to investigate further, claiming that the leaking material was likely rainwater, even though it registered as radioactive. WRPS was in the first couple years of a 10-year, $7.1-billion contract to manage the aging tank farms.
“They have to put money into protecting workers, which they don’t want to do,” said Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a watchdog organization that wants to “transform Hanford’s nuclear legacy into a model of safe and effective cleanup.”
Many of Hanford’s original single-shell tanks leaked and contaminated the local groundwater decades ago.
The real solution, according to Carpenter, is to install chemical scrubbers – used in other industries – to capture and treat vapors before they’re released into the air.
“It’s been recommended that they do that since 1992,” he said.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Carpenter obtained documents from 2005 to 2009 that recorded at least 100 instances of hazardous chemicals exceeding safety standards.
In one instance, a toxin known to cause liver damage called nitrosodimethylamine, or NDMA, was found in concentrations more than 13,000 times greater than those permitted by federal health and safety standards.
“It’s page after page of these kind of things, where there are 3,000 times, 3,700 times the permissible limit,” said Carpenter. “The Department of Energy itself has done several assessments in the last four years of the safety culture at the Hanford site and has given them a failing grade.”