Lessons from Japan: Is Hanford Ready to Withstand a Big Earthquake?

Anna King Explores why watchdogs are worried about Washington’s only commercial nuclear reactor.

The ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan—triggered by the March 11 earthquake—has federal officials asking tough questions about nuclear safety in our state.

Washington’s only commercial nuclear reactor, the Columbia Generating Station, is located on the grounds of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south-central Washington.

But it’s not the reactor that’s stressing experts out; it’s some of the other facilities that lie in the wide-open, sage-studded desert at Hanford that cause worry. These facilities were never designed to survive a catastrophic earthquake—and they contain some pretty sinister stuff.

Further, a report released in June by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a federal watchdog group, has called into question the safety culture of the largest project on the nuclear site—the waste-treatment plant.

“Hanford has a lot of vulnerabilities,” says Tom Carpenter, who leads the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge. “If an earthquake is big enough, we know there could be flooding, a dam could be knocked out, or the power could be knocked loose.” If a quake causes power systems or aging structures to fail, experts say, there could be serious trouble—in three particularly sensitive facilities.

The first, the Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, holds a huge amount of radioactive chemicals stored in stainless-steel capsules submerged in cooling pools. The pools look like swimming pools—but they glow an eerie blue from decaying cesium and strontium, chemicals extracted from the site’s main storage tanks because they were causing the waste to get dangerously hot, threatening to damage the tanks. To keep the waste safe, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says, the capsules have to be kept under cooled water—but that carries with it a serious risk: If there were a power outage, the water could boil away, and that could cause the 1,936 capsules of radioactive waste to be exposed.

And that’s not the only worry. “There are a lot of curies [units of radioactivity] there,” says Susan Leckband, chair of the Hanford Advisory Board (HAB). “Whenever you have a vessel filled with water, there is always consideration that it could leak.” The HAB is tasked with making recommendations to the three agencies that regulate cleanup at Hanford: the DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington’s Department of Ecology. The HAB has suggested moving the waste to dry storage; the government has until 2017 to figure out what to do.

The second dangerous area is the “tank farm,” a collection of underground storage tanks located beneath what look like gravel and asphalt parking lots in the middle of the desert. Venting tubes and workers in white radiation-protection suits are the only clues that these tanks, full of dangerous radioactive sludge, lurk below the surface. The aging steel and concrete tanks—built during World War II and the Cold War—hold 53 million gallons of radioactive waste containing 190 million curies of radioactivity. (By comparison, the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster released about 43,000 curies into the environment.) Already, several tanks have been found to be leaking millions of gallons of highly radioactive sludge into the soil and groundwater. “Tank waste is one of the largest risks in the department’s environmental management program,” says Erik Olds, a DOE spokesman, “and that is why one of our major priorities is to get the waste out of these tanks and immobilize it as quickly as possible. The tanks at Hanford were designed and built to standards applicable [in the 1940s and ’50s] and continue to be evaluated.”

But Hanford Challenge’s Carpenter worries that, should there be an earthquake, these already battle-worn tanks might not hold all that goo. “Heat and stress and age all take a toll on a tank, and they just fall apart,” Carpenter says. “The tanks were never designed to last this long. [An earthquake] could cause a dome collapse.” Dome collapse means the top of the tank might fall in and prevent venting, which Carpenter says can result in a dangerous buildup of flammable hydrogen gas. “Once you have contamination like that [spread] all over, then it’s hard to maintain all the other tanks,” Carpenter says.

Hanford officials are building a $12 billion factory in the middle of the site to turn that sludge into glass logs, which are more stable. Now, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is questioning the safety culture of the U.S. Energy Department and its contractors at Hanford. The group’s report says that workers on the waste treatment plant project are afraid to bring up safety problems for fear of retaliation or demotion. The report further says that these problems call the entire project into question.

Previously, portions of that project were shut down between 2005 and 2007 while investigators drilled deep-bore holes and studied the site to determine whether it’s tough enough to withstand big earthquakes.

Work continues on the plant, where waste will be mixed with glass-forming materials, then heated before getting poured into large steel containers to cool. The highly radioactive logs will then be stored in a deep geologic repository, but the location of that repository is the subject of debate. Plans to store it at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain were recently scrapped by the Obama administration; now, there’s a Blue Ribbon Commission studying the issue and a national debate over where a repository should be located.

As treacherous as the tank waste is, it’s still fairly remote, located in the center of the massive Hanford site. Not so for the third danger zone: the K-West Basin, a huge pool of water that holds steel containers full of highly radioactive and dense sludge, just 400 yards from the Columbia River and upstream from dozens of communities. This sludge is the unintended byproduct of more than 100,000 unused uranium fuel rods. In the 1950s, when officials decided to stop making plutonium at Hanford, they needed a place to store these leftover rods. So they put them into two basins, each filled with a million gallons of water.

In the ’90s, Hanford officials discovered that the one of the pools, K-East, was leaking contaminated water into the ground. Worse yet, some of those rods had corroded in the water and mixed with windblown sand and concrete sloughing from the pool itself, creating a thick sludge. The DOE and its contractors have removed one of those pools and have nearly finished cleaning up the contaminated soil underneath. But to do that, sludge from K-East was moved into K-West. The sludge is very dangerous and many times heavier than water; if it’s exposed to air, it can catch fire. “It’s very dense and it’s very hazardous,” says Geoff Tyree, a DOE spokesman. “It’s not your average sludge.” The fear is that this aging basin might rupture and leak, contaminating soil near the Columbia River.

Hanford officials and watchdogs alike want the K-West Basin destroyed and the sludge treated and moved to a safer location away from the river. Tyree says the working plan now is to move the waste to storage in central Hanford; the government has proposed to have a final plan by 2015.    

There’s a new sense of urgency for cleanup efforts at Hanford. For years, top scientists have said a big earthquake in the area is highly unlikely in our lifetimes, and a lot of designs at Hanford are based on that assumption. But a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) finds that earthquakes may be more common in the area than previously thought. For three years, USGS researchers, including Richard Blakely, flew survey planes and dug trenches along fault lines in eastern Washington to investigate the theory that the Puget Sound faults might connect there. “I have the feeling, looking at the pattern of faults in the Puget Sound and the pattern of faults in the Yakima fold and thrust belt that they may be connected in some way through the Cascade Range,” Blakely says. “If we have faults that are dangerous on the west side, we need to be thinking about where that strain goes in an eastward direction.” Scientists are now studying swarms of miniature earthquakes that have been occurring recently on the Hanford site.

The federal government is spending billions of dollars each year on cleanup at Hanford, but Leckband and others worry that proposed reductions to the DOE’s 2012 budget could slow the work. Meanwhile, thousands of people—from scientists to union electricians—are working on the site. It’s a race against time and the elements amid fears that something like what’s happening in Japan—where radiation is still leaking into the air and a 12-mile radius around the plant remains evacuated—could possibly happen here. Hanford watchdog Carpenter says he just hopes the cleanup will be completed before the next major earthquake. “If we get cleanup done in the next 50 years, then we’ll be fine, I hope—but who can say, right?”

Anna King regularly reports on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation for Seattle Business magazine and for public radio's Northwest News Network. Her stories can be heard on KUOW, KPLU, OPB and Northwest Public Radio.


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