The U.S. Department of Energy released a statement Monday calling the leak an “anticipated” outcome of an ongoing effort to empty the tank in question. The Washington state Department of Ecology said, “There is no indication of waste leaking into the environment or risk to the public at this time.”
But one former tank farm worker said the leak should be considered a major problem.
“This is catastrophic. This is probably the biggest event to ever happen in tank farm history. The double shell tanks were supposed to be the saviors of all saviors (to hold waste safely from people and the environment),” said former Hanford worker Mike Geffre.
Geffre is the worker who first discovered that the tank, known as AY-102, was failing in 2011. In a 2013 series, “Hanford’s Dirty Secrets,” the KING 5 Investigators exposed that the government contractor in charge of the tanks, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), ignored Geffre’s findings for nearly a year. The company finally admitted the problem in 2012.
Until now, the leak found by Geffre was very slow. The liquid would almost immediately dry up, leaving a salt-like substance on the floor of the two-foot space between the tank’s walls, called the annulus.
Approximately three weeks ago, work began to pump out the contents of AY-102, which has the capacity to hold one million gallons of the deadly waste. The state of Washington has been pressuring the federal government, which owns Hanford, to pump out AY-102 for three-and-a-half years because of the cracking and slow leaking discovered by Geffre in 2011. Sources told KING the disturbance caused by the pumping must have exacerbated the leak: essentially blowing a hole in the aging tank allowing the material to leak more quickly into the outer shell.
Tank AY-102 is one of 28 double-shell tanks at Hanford (there are 177 underground tanks total) holding nuclear byproducts from nearly four decades of plutonium production on the Hanford Nuclear Site, located near Richland. Initially the plutonium was used to fuel the bombed dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II.
The new leak poses problems on several fronts. The outer shell of AY-102 does not have the exhaust or filtration system needed to keep the dangerous gases created by the waste in check. Workers have been ordered to wear full respiratory safety gear in the area, but the risk remains.
“The hazards to workers just went up by a factor of 10,” said Geffre.
In addition, the breakdown calls into question the viability of three other double-shell tanks at Hanford that have the exact design of AY-102.
“The primary tanks weren’t designed to stage waste like this for so many years,” said a current worker. “There’s always the question, ‘Are the outer shells compromised’”?
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