“They don’t want to hear what the board has to say, but they absolutely need to,” said an engineer who worked at Hanford about the Energy Department.
An unfinished nuclear site in Central Washington poses a danger of leaks and explosions, said a new report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. However, the Trump administration says otherwise.
The Hanford site was claimed by the government during World War II as a secret site for producing plutonium, an element used in the creation of nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Nine nuclear reactors were opened up at Hanford but slowly shut down, with the last one closing down in 1987.
The unfinished pretreatment plant has for years been designated as an important part of cleanup operations. If completed, it would have the ability to filter out solid, high-level radioactive waste with the help of more than 100 miles of piping and four stainless-steel tanks.
However, the safety board in 2010 identified a number of issues that raise concerns over the risk of explosion from the buildup of hydrogen gas in the pipes and the danger of radioactive releases from Hanford nuclear complex.
Despite the assessment, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the major issues previously identified were now “resolved” and it is now rearing up to resume its design work.
Furthermore, the energy department wants to downsize or completely abolish the safety board all together.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has provided independent audits of defense nuclear site throughout the country for almost three decades.
In 2011, after whistleblower allegations, the board released a harsh review of a “failed safety culture” at the Hanford waste treatment complex. It found that technical objections were “discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review” which could jeopardize the project’s mission.
The board, which in its new report still challenges the Energy Department assumptions, says its role is vital for the continued safety of nuclear sites. The agency has been watching the development of the Hanford waste-treatment complex which broke ground in 2002. The goal is to transform 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into glass rods that can be stored safely for long-term. However, safety concerns, including those stated in the latest report, have slowed down its development even as billions of dollars have been spent in the effort.
“They don’t want to hear what the board has to say, but they absolutely need to,” said Dirk Dunning, a retired Oregon Department of Energy engineer who worked on Hanford issues for two decades.
But spokesman Yvonne Levardi said when the Energy Department says a plant’s problem has been “resolved” it doesn’t mean the issue has been fixed in its entirety, rather enough progress has been made to resume design work.
The Energy Department said in a statement released in February it had confirmed design, process changes and safety controls to address the potential risk of explosions.
“I could not be prouder of our … technical and nuclear safety teams for their focus and commitment to resolve these technical issues,” Bill Hamel, the assistant project manager for Hanford’s waste treatment plant, said in the statement.
Hanford site was investigated for a possible leak just in May after radioactive material was discovered on worker’s clothing. Before that, a tunnel at the site collapsed igniting fears of radiation exposure. High readings of radiation on a robotic device known as a crawler that workers were taking out of a nuclear waste tank were also detected.
Seems like the danger has not yet passed. Does Trump want another Chernobyl on his hands?
Banner/Thumbnail credit: REUTERS, Anthony Bolante