Energy & Environment

Hanford mishap should be wake-up call


The near-disaster last week at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, where the U.S. once produced much of the plutonium for its nuclear weapons, should be a wake-up call for Energy Secretary Rick Perry. 

DOE declared a site-wide emergency May 9 when workers discovered a 400-square-foot sinkhole over a 1960s tunnel crammed with railcars of nuclear waste, ordering thousands of workers to shelter in place.

{mosads}Fortunately, no radioactive material leaked from the hole before workers plugged it with dirt, according to the DOE. But there is no cause for complacency. The tunnel is only one structure among many at the vast array of deteriorating, Cold War-era nuclear waste dumps that Perry now oversees.


After the damage at Hanford was repaired, Perry said the next step is to “identify and implement longer-term measures to further reduce risks.” By all means, the DOE should proceed quickly with this review, broaden its scope to cover the entire nuclear complex and provide the resources to fully remediate the detritus of decades of nuclear weapons production.

Some commentators have erroneously dismissed the potential risks of the waste storage tunnel collapse. Make no mistake: This tunnel, not to mention most of the aging DOE nuclear weapons infrastructure, is only one natural disaster away from a major radiological release. Some of the radioactive material, including cesium-137, plutonium and americium, is in the form of dust and debris that could be easily spread in the event of a major tunnel collapse.

Cesium-137, one of the isotopes that Japan’s 2011 Fukushima accident released into the environment, contaminated hundreds of square miles with long-lived radioactivity and forced over 100,000 people to relocate. (To set the scale, the damaged Hanford tunnel and a larger tunnel adjacent to it together contain about as much cesium-137 as the amount that three Fukushima reactors emitted into the atmosphere.) 

A 2015 Hanford risk study concluded that a modest earthquake could cause the “total structural failure” of the two tunnels and the release of many radiological contaminants. Off-site impacts would likely be limited, given the tunnels’ location near the center of the 586-square-mile Hanford site. However, a release could seriously endanger site personnel and contaminate a wide area, making an already difficult cleanup job at Hanford even more hazardous and costly.

The DOE has already witnessed a major disruption to its operations caused by relatively minor radioactive contamination. In February 2014, a waste drum overheated and ruptured, causing a fire and releasing plutonium and americium at the DOE’s underground nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Exhaust duct dampers closed rapidly and limited the atmospheric release, but a large area in the repository was contaminated, shutting the facility for nearly three years. The incident required more than $600 million to clean up and delayed nuclear waste shipments from around the DOE complex to WIPP. 

The infamous root cause of the WIPP accident was the mistaken addition of the word “organic” to a technical procedure written by Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the waste drum was produced. Workers there dutifully followed procedure, purchasing kitty litter containing organic materials and adding it to hundreds of waste drums to absorb liquids without realizing that the organic substance was combustible and could be ignited by other chemicals in the drums. 

This troubling error was a consequence of sloppy work practices that flourished under lax DOE oversight of contractors that manage its facilities. In a 2015 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) drew a direct connection between the Los Alamos screw-up and a 2010 policy instituted by then-Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman that gave contractors “the flexibility to tailor and implement safety without excessive federal oversight or overly prescriptive departmental requirements.”

In other words, the foxes were put in charge of the henhouses. 

The GAO also found that this policy contributed to slipshod security at a storage facility for highly enriched weapons uranium at Tennessee’s Y-12 plant. The lapse came to light when three nonviolent protesters, including an 82-year-old nun, were able to breach the perimeter and enter the high-security facility without being stopped by guards.

By the end of the Obama administration, the DOE reversed course and began to penalize its contractors for poor performance. For example, deviating from the usual practice, DOE refused to provide an award fee in fiscal year 2016 for “integrated project execution” to CB&I Areva MOX Services, the contractor building a plutonium fuel fabrication factory at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which is significantly behind schedule and over budget. 

Although the Trump administration is no fan of regulation, hopefully, Secretary Perry now recognizes that stringent DOE safety and security oversight of its nuclear complex and its contractors is critical. That is a key step in dealing with all the nuclear waste across the complex, from millions of gallons of radioactive liquids in potentially explosive tanks to tons of plutonium oxide sitting in shipping casks that were not designed to store it.

The DOE got lucky at Hanford last week. The agency needs to step up its game before luck runs out.


Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., earned a doctorate in physics from Cornell University in 1992. He is a co-author (with David Lochbaum and Susan Q. Stranahan) of the book Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags clean energy Edwin Lyman Hanford nuclear site Nuclear power Nuclear weapons

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