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Sunrise at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington.  (Photo: Scott Butner/flickr/cc)

'Significant Design Vulnerabilities' Plague Massive Nuclear Waste Site, Leaked Internal Review Reveals

'The fact that the Department of Energy has not released this report, prepared last year, is alarming and indicative of a safety-last culture.'

Andrea Germanos

A leaked internal review of the nation's largest nuclear clean-up site found hundreds of "significant design vulnerabilities" and begs questions about the Energy Department's transparency, a watchdog group says.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington houses radioactive waste from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, and the decades-long clean-up effort has been costly and plagued by leaking underground nuclear waste storage tanks.

Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, which advocates for safe clean-up of the site, says it received the Department of Energy document from a whistleblower who has worked at the site for many years as an engineer.

"The fact that the Department of Energy has not released this report, prepared last year, is alarming and indicative of a safety-last culture," said Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of the group.

The document is a 2014 draft review called "Low-Activity Waste Facility Design and Operability Review and Recommendations." That LAW facility, Hanford Challenge explains in a statement, "is designed to treat waste from Hanford’s high-level nuclear waste tanks that will be pre-treated to remove the highly-radioactive materials before being mixed with glass formers in a facility designed to vitrify the low level waste."

From the executive summary of the leaked report:

Carpenter said, "This document was leaked by someone who was frustrated, and also fearful. This plant is so riddled with design, quality indeterminate, nuclear safety and worker health threats that it is hard to see how this plant could ever open without very significant and expensive rework. "The good news is, DOE commissioned this report, the bad news is they sat on it, all the while saying everything is okay with how they are proceeding," he continued. "It raises concerns about whether management is trying to cover up or water down the findings."

From the Washington Post:

An Energy Department spokesman said that the report was a “very early draft” that contained a number of factual inaccuracies.

“The Department is committed to designing, building and safely operating” the waste facility, spokeswoman Yvonne Levardi said. “While the draft report has not been finalized, it does not identify any unknown major technical issues with the Low Activity Waste Facility.”

The leaked review comes the same month as whistleblower Walter Tamosaitis, who raised safety concerns regarding operations at the site, reached a $4.1 settlement with Hanford subcontractor AECOM.

And last year, documents obtained by the Associated Press showed there were "significant construction flaws" in some of the double-shell storage tanks at the facility. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged the Energy Department to provide an action plan of how it would deal with the risks the flaws pose, writing in a letter (pdf) to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz: "It is time for the Department to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed."

The Washington site has proven itself an "intractable problem" that "costs taxpayers a billion dollars a year," author and history professor Kate Brown wrote earlier this year. "Corporate contractors hired to clean up Hanford have made hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and surcharges, and, since little has been accomplished, the tab promises to mount for decades."


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