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Hanford Leak a Study in Neglect

by Michael Milstein
The Oregonian, September 21, 2007

Report - Failures and oversights by contractors and the government preceded a radioactive waste leak

Hanford city site on Columbia River (by Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth) Engineers warned years ago of the possibility of the kind of pumping malfunction that spewed highly radioactive and toxic waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in July, but their warnings were ignored, a high-level federal investigation found.

In a report released Thursday, investigators cited repeated failures by federal contractors and the government itself to follow policies and procedures that could have prevented the chemical spill at the Cold War bomb-making facility along the Columbia River.

Pressure to meet contract deadlines and poor federal oversight may have contributed to the failures, the investigation found.

Some of the failures were almost identical to earlier violations that caused the U.S. Department of Energy's enforcement branch to fine the Hanford contractor, CH2M Hill Hanford Group, $82,500 late last year.

The federal government created Hanford at the dawn of the nuclear age to manufacture plutonium for bombs, but it's now the nation's most contaminated nuclear site. Some radioactive and chemical waste has seeped into the river, and Oregon officials fear more could follow in coming decades.

The July spill was the latest breakdown in a multibillion-dollar cleanup plagued by violations, delays and cost overruns.

Hours passed before CH2M Hill workers realized that 85 gallons of radioactive and chemical sludge had sprayed onto the ground -- because they didn't think such a spill could have happened. They also dismissed such warning signs as high radiation readings.

The workers thought the readings were caused by radioactive material stuck in a pipeline but failed to look for other forms of radiation that would have alerted them to a spill. They also dismissed reports by experienced workers that the area was "very stinky."

"They were assuming things were normal until they could find that they weren't," said John Britton, a CH2M Hill spokesman. "It's a totally wrong mind-set."

Corrective plan pending

The federal investigation, the highest-intensity probe the Department of Energy conducts, mirrored the conclusions of the company's internal review of the spill, Britton said. On Wednesday, CH2M Hill suspended all field work involving radioactive material until it determines what corrective action to take, Britton said.

Energy Department officials overseeing the Hanford cleanup must also submit a corrective action plan to the assistant secretary of energy within 60 days. The department's enforcement branch may review whether to penalize CH2M Hill for violations connected to the spill.

The spill occurred when workers were trying to pump radioactive sludge the consistency of chunky peanut butter from a deteriorating underground tank into a newer double-walled tank less likely to leak.

But on July 26, the main line leading to the new tank clogged. Workers reversed the pumps to try to unclog the line early the following morning. That inadvertently drove the waste up a separate water line that was never intended to carry waste.

The water line burst, spewing waste onto the ground above the tank. The line lacked required safety valves that should have prevented waste from flowing through it, the federal investigation found.

Issue raised years before

A CH2M Hill subcontractor had raised concerns during a safety review years before about what would happen to the water line if the pump was reversed, the investigation found. But the issue was never addressed.

"It was raised and it was analyzed and it was deemed not credible," Britton said. "The potential for it was so low, it was deemed to be an incredible event and not possible, which was obviously incorrect."

Investigators identified the failure to build in safety measures as "the primary programmatic breakdown that led to the accident."

Two workers came within 10 feet of the leak, but the company did not fully consider the risk of chemical exposure until workers began reporting symptoms within the following days, the investigation found.

The investigation also pointed to poor oversight of Hanford contractors by the Energy Department, which should have caught the problems. "Contributing factors may include a lack of engineering expertise, inadequate staff and schedule pressures," it said.

Michael Milstein
Hanford Leak a Study in Neglect
The Oregonian, September 21, 2007

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