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Safety Issues Unfold at Hanford

by Greg Spearing
Yakima Herald-Republic, July 7, 2011

(Steve Ringman, Seattle Times) A worker, top, checks a gauge in the Columbia Generating Station control room that shows the status of the fuel core. Below, workers on a shift change at the plant near Richland remove their protective clothing before moving outside the roped-off containment area. Mr. Mark Reddemann, CEO of Energy Northwest, the operator of the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant 10 miles north of Richland, wrote a guest editorial for the Yakima Herald-Republic. The date of publication on the Yakima Herald-Republic's website on April 1, 2011, may have been a coincidence, but his vapid assurances got a gallows laugh from myself.

Part of Mr. Reddemann's remarks include the following. "Our nation's 104 nuclear power plants are also among the most durable facilities in America, able to withstand all forms of natural and man-made disasters, including major volcanic, seismic and flood activity."

While the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daa-ichi Japan power plants continue to unfold in ever more alarming proportions, we in Washington state have an unfolding nuclear problem in our own backyard.

The decades-long, $12.2-billion effort to remediate nuclear material at Hanford's Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) is close to failure.

Despite Mr. Reddemann's assurances, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (funded by the nuclear industry) singled out the Columbia Nuclear plant operated by Energy Northwest as one of two plants in the nation most in need of improvement in processes and human performance.

A recent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board investigation has found "significant failures by both the Department of Energy and contractor management to implement their roles as advocates for a strong safety culture."

And: "Taken as a whole, the investigative record convinces the Board that the safety culture at WTP is in need of prompt, major improvement and that corrective actions will only be successful and enduring if championed by the Secretary of Energy."

In addition, "The successful completion of WTP's mission to remove and stabilize high-level waste from the tank farms is essential to protect the health and safety of the public and workers at Hanford. However, the flawed safety culture currently embedded in the project has a substantial probability of jeopardizing that mission."

The investigation was prompted when Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, a former engineering manager at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, alleged that he was removed from the project because he identified certain technical issues that in his view could affect safety.

The Hanford plant operated in secrecy for decades as part of a nuclear weapons program. The plant construction and operations were exempt from environmental and nuclear safety standards that govern commercial nuclear operations.

One may ask, "So what?"

Unfortunately, the answer is the evidence of damage to the environment and to public health.

In testimony on May 13, 2011, Congress was warned that U.S. nuclear power plants are not safe. David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, serves as the Director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Mr. Lochbaum has a lengthy resume of employment in the nuclear industry including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Areas of Mr. Lochbaum's expertise include boiling water reactors.

Mr. Lochbaum testified that critical issues of plant safety operations are "voluntary and have no regulatory basis" and that the "NRC never checks the guidelines to see if they would be effective under severe accident conditions."

As a former nuclear plant quality control inspector for fire and radiation barriers, I can report that the reality of nuclear plant operations falls short of what the public is told or deserves.

Related Pages:
State's Only Commercial Nuclear-power Plant: How Safe is It? by Sandi Doughton, Seattle Times, 7/2/11
Is Our Nuclear Plant Safe? Yes by Ann Congdon, Wenatchee World, 5/10/11
Inside Hanford: A Tour of the NW's Only Nuclear Power Plant by Dan Tilkin, KATU, 5/5/11

Greg Spearing is a longtime political activist who lives in Yakima.
Safety Issues Unfold at Hanford
Yakima Herald-Republic, July 7, 2011

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