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Workers Have Found a 'Significant' Nuclear Waste Leak At a Washington Storage Site

Image: AP
Image: AP

A slow, ongoing nuclear waste leak at a storage facility in Washington State has escalated over the weekend. According to KING 5 News, the leak has expanded significantly, and one former worker is calling it “catastrophic.”

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A leak from the inner hull of AY-102, an old double-wall storage tank, was first discovered in 2011. But it was very slow, and would result in the waste drying up, leaving a residue on the inside of the outer hull. Workers were in the process of pumping the remaining waste out of the inner hull when a larger leak was discovered.

According to reports, the leak alarm started sounding on Sunday morning. Crews lowered a camera in, and found eight inches of radioactive waste inside the hull. It’s likely that the pumping work, which has been happening for the last three weeks, was the cause of the larger leak.

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The Washington State Department of Ecology, which is overseeing the project, has said that the leak doesn’t pose a threat to workers on site, or the public. The waste leak was “anticipated” (although not planned) as part of the process of emptying the tank.

No waste has penetrated the outer shell of the tank, and there’s still a leak detection pit below the tank, which has remained dry. However, pumping equipment is being installed in the space between the shells. Workers on site have been told to wear respiratory safety gear, as a precaution against gases given off by leaking waste.

Hanford Site was built as part of the Manhattan Project, and stores waste from the first full-scale plutonium reactor in the world, initially built during WWII. One hundred and twenty-two underground storage tanks were built to store the waste; however, they were never designed to hold contaminated water for this long.

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This isn’t even the most serious leak at Hanford—as of 2013, there were six single-wall storage tanks leaking contaminated water into the soil below.

As for tank AY-102, approximately 20,000 gallons remain, from the 800,000 gallons originally stored. Questions remain over the removal process, such as whether the pumping process will exacerbate the existing leak, and as to the integrity of the outer shell.

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A leak of contaminated water wouldn’t pose a radiation danger to the public of the same scale as Chernobyl or Fukushima; rather, it’s the risk of long-term damage to groundwater that’s so scary.

[KING 5, Tri-City Herald]

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DISCUSSION

It’s a lot of over blown bullshit. This could have been reported without the scare tactics and instead just the facts. A former coworker of mine works out there (actually think he does some of the tank transfers via a control center, though have no idea if he’s worked specifically on this tank. Either way, he’s actually on site doing work there and had the following to say...)

“No need to worry Tri-Cities. Once again, Seattle is over embellishing and giving the public false information because of one individual who has it out for Hanford. If I feel fine, you should feel fine. Share this with as many people as you know.

AY-102 sludge retrieval was suspended this past weekend, with approximately 95 percent of the waste retrieved, when operations took a challenging, but not unanticipated, turn. Early Sunday morning, an increasing level of tank waste was detected in the tank’s annulus, indicating an increased leak rate from the tank’s primary tank. Video footage confirmed higher levels of waste, approximately eight inches total, in the annulus.

DOE and WRPS had anticipated the possible need for annulus pumping, as tank retrieval reached the bottom of the tank and sludge waste was removed or shifted, potentially opening a less restricted leak path into the annulus. Per an approved contingency plan, annulus pumping equipment had already been installed before any AY-102 retrieval began, leaving only the final tie-in of the system to be completed, if it became necessary.

Crews worked yesterday into early this morning to complete tie-in of the transfer system from the annulus to the primary tank. A check of the leak detection pit beneath AY-102 and industrial hygiene monitoring for radioactive and chemical emissions above the tank, conducted yesterday, found no indication of any environmental releases from the tank.

This morning, the level of the waste in the annulus began to drop. Farm access was restricted while another check of the leak detection pit was made. Again, there was no indication of waste reaching the leak detector pit, and other potential reasons for the level decrease are being evaluated. Industrial hygiene sweeps of the farm are now complete and, based on those results, we will resume placement of the shielding over the hose-in-hose transfer line from the annulus to the primary tank later this evening. Then, final checks of the system and operational procedures will be made, and we plan to begin pumping waste from the annulus into the primary tank. We expect to resume sludge retrieval simultaneously with annulus pumping.

As a precautionary measure, supplied air will be required in AY Farm during this work, based on the changed condition in the annulus. A Vapor Control Zone around the AP Farm exhauster and a Vapor Reduction Zone for the remainder of AP Farm will be in effect.

Unfortunately, some news media outlets have reported the changes in AY-102 this weekend as “catastrophic,” causing undue concern about the safety of workers and the public. Please share with your family and friends the facts of the situation.

I am extremely proud and appreciative of the efforts of many of you this past weekend in responding to this latest challenge”