Story Summary

Hanford nuclear site cleanup

Hanford is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in Washington, operated by the U.S. government.  Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb. The weapons production reactors were decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, but the decades of manufacturing left behind 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste, 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater beneath the site and occasional discoveries of contaminations. The Hanford site represents two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume. Today, Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States and is the focus of the nation’s largest environmental cleanup.

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Radioactive Waste Cleanup Continues At Hanford Nuclear Reservation

A sign is seen as you enter the world’s largest environmental cleanup project at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation June 30, 2005 near Richland, Washington.

OLYMPIA — For the second time in less than a month, Gov. Jay Inslee has issued new demands to the federal government in the proposed timeline to cleanup the Hanford Nuclear Site.

Inslee’s demands for cleanup includes four requirements not outlined by the latest federal government plan. On Monday, the state demanded a revised step-by-step schedule to complete construction of the Waste Treatment Plant, new requirements for getting waste out of a leaky single-shell tanks and request the state address the environmental risks caused by the leaking site.

Inslee’s plans also call for the federal government to be held accountable to a timeline and release of information.

“The state has been frustrated by the lack of timely information from the federal government,” Inslee said in a release Monday.

The Department of Ecology issued an Administrative order earlier this month requiring the pumping to start Sept. 1 of this year. State officials have previously said the state would levy fines against the federal government if clean up efforts continued to drag on.

Tank AY-102 was confirmed to be leaking into its secondary containment in fall of 2012.  Since that time the state and the feds have been negotiating cleanup.  However after months of talking, the state now says it is convinced the feds aren’t willing to begin the waste removal in a timely manner.

The state wants complete removal of enough waste to allow for an inspection to find the cause of the leak by December 1st 2016.

Inslee hanford

Gov. Inslee talks with Energy Dept official over leaking Hanford tank cleanup.

OLYMPIA, Wash – The state has ordered the federal government to begin removing radioactive waste from a leaking tank at Hanford a year and a half before the feds themselves planned to begin.

The Department of Ecology issues an Administrative order Friday requiring the pumping to start September 1st of this year.

Tank AY-102 was confirmed to be leaking into its secondary containment in fall of 2012.  Since that time the state and the feds have been negotiating cleanup.  However after months of talking, the state now says it is convinced the feds aren’t willing to begin the waste removal in a timely manner.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon said the feds must move in the most aggressive manner possible to protect public health and the environment in this situation.

“Waiting another two years, at best, to initiate actions to address this hazardous condition is neither legally acceptable nor environmentally prudent,” said Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “The state cannot afford further delays on removing waste from this tank.”

Bellon said the feds must also submit a new evaluation of the integrity of the secondary containment system within 90 days, take monthly samples of the liquids from the tank’s detection pit, conduct weekly video inspections as well as begin removal of solid waste by December 1st 2015.

The state wants complete removal of enough waste to allow for an inspection to find the cause of the leak by December 1st 2016.

Bellon says if the feds do not comply the state will begin levying fines.

SEATTLE — Political analyst C.R. Douglas, who has toured the Hanford nuclear site with Gov. Jay Inslee, looks at the growing frustrations with the federal government’s missed cleanup deadlines.

SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday the U.S. Energy Department needs to take action at the Hanford Nuclear Site in the wake of news of  more possible leaks in underground containment units.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced last year new waste possibly escaped Hanford’s oldest double-shell tank at the site. They didn’t believe waste material had leaked into the ground, and no indication of waste was in nearby soils.


An example of possible leaks in nuclear waste containment units at Hanford.

But state officials fear new cracks in containment mean waste will eventually leak from the concrete into the ground, and Inslee urged the federal government to remove waste from the tank.

A year ago, the DOE said it would come up with a plan to remove waste by waste by tomorrow, but no plan is in place yet, Inslee said Thursday.

More than 170 underground tanks dot the Hanford area, considered temporary fixes for holing 53 million gallons of nuclear waste sludge produced by the Manhattan Project.


he waste treatment plant at the former Hanford nuclear weapons complex is a small industrial city that would transform radioactive sludge to solid glass. (Department of Energy)

RICHLAND, Wash. — The head of nuclear safety for the cleanup of the former nuclear weapons site at Hanford, Wash., was fired Tuesday after allegations she made over several years that the construction project was ignoring serious safety problems.

Donna Busche, an employee of San Francisco-based URS Corp., said executives at the company told her she was being fired for “unprofessional conduct” before she was escorted out of the company’s offices at the site in central Washington.

The company denied that her dismissal was punitive or connected to her criticism of the project.

Busche is at least the third senior project official at Hanford who has been fired or who left under duress after raising concerns about safety at the massive $13.4-billion construction project, which has been stalled for more than a year over concerns about its basic design.

“The Energy Department’s overall safety culture is broken and all they are doing now is sitting idly by,” Busche said in an interview Tuesday.

The Energy Department’s inspector general, as well as other federal investigators, has faulted the Energy Department’s management of the project and raised a broad range of safety concerns.

Busche, a nuclear engineer and health physicist who directed a staff of 140 engineers, scientists and technicians, had repeatedly raised concerns over a lack of safety in the design of a waste treatment plant during her five years at the project.

The Hanford site is the Energy Department’s largest cleanup project, aiming to transform 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge held in underground tanks into solid glass. But the effectiveness of the advanced technology needed to accomplish the job is in doubt after allegations raised by several senior scientists and engineers at Hanford.

Walter Tamosaitis, the head of research at URS, was fired last year after he had raised serious concerns among outside experts about whether an innovative system for mixing waste in large tanks might allow explosive hydrogen gas to build up. The concerns led to a federal investigation and a work stoppage as the issue was considered. The matter has yet to be resolved.

Busche had raised similar concerns, saying that URS was attempting to use design tools that would enable the firm to eliminate thousands of safety features. She also alleged that the company had bypassed her staff and failed to conduct nuclear safety reviews of many of the plant’s design features.

In an interview with The Times last year, Busche said flatly that the current design for mixing waste at the project would not work. The Energy Department is considering a major change in the plant’s overall architecture and may delay further the completion of an important part of the cleanup plant.

In February 2013, Busche filed a federal suit alleging that her warnings had been suppressed, that she had suffered retaliation for raising safety issues and that URS was working to fire her. The complaint followed a harassment complaint that Busche had filed with the U.S. Labor Department.

“I am a little numb,” Busche said Tuesday. “I am going to take a deep breath because it has been a long five years with what I have gone through at the waste treatment plant.”

An Energy Department spokesman said URS informed the department that it terminated Busche. “The department was not asked to and did not approve this action,” he said.

It is unclear whether URS should have obtained approval, because Busche is classified as “key personnel” and generally they cannot be substituted or transferred without federal approval.

A URS public relations firm in New York, Sard Verbinnen, confirmed Busche had been fired, but said the action was “unrelated to her purported concerns.”

“Though URS supports Ms. Busche’s right to raise concerns and to express her personal views, we do not agree with her assertions that she suffered retaliation or was otherwise treated unfairly,” a statement says. “Ms. Busche’s allegations will not withstand scrutiny, and URS looks forward to demonstrating through the legal process that the company and its managers acted appropriately and in full compliance with the law in their dealings with Ms. Busche.”

In addition to Busche and Tamosaitis, Gary Brunson, the Energy Department’s engineering division director at Hanford, sent a memo in 2012 to higher-level officials that alleged 34 instances in which Bechtel, the design authority for the plant, had committed factual errors, pursued unsafe designs or provided equipment that did not meet federal standards.

Brunson, who voluntarily left his job, said that those failures had led to delays and increased costs and that the Energy Department should remove Bechtel. San Francisco-based Bechtel remains the prime contractor on the project.

When Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz visited the Hanford project last year, he met with Tamosaitis and half a dozen other concerned engineers and scientists. After the meeting, Moniz issued a statement asserting the Energy Department’s commitment to safety and its willingness to hear concerns.

Not long after the statement, however, Tamosaitis was fired by URS. And Busche said Tuesday that four other people who met with Moniz have been fired, transferred or pushed out of their jobs.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, called the personnel actions part of a “war on whistle-blowers.

RICHLAND — The Hanford Nuclear Reservation could become a new hub for manufacturing or assembling small commercial modular nuclear reactors, according to the Tri-City Herald.

hanfordThe Tri-City Development Council is currently seeking bids study the potential benefits of building a small modular reactor system at Hanford.

The Herald reports the Department of Energy has announced $452 million in matching funds for two proposals to design and license modular nuclear reactors. The DOE grants have not yet designated a site which gives the development council time to make the case that Hanford is the best place for an operating small modular reactor.

A new modular reactor would cost between $500 million and $1 billion and would create several hundred construction jobs along with 100 permanent jobs, the Herald reported.

The DOE plans to have the first small reactors in operation within a decade.

Other DOE sites in Tennessee and South Carolina are also being considered for a modular reactor, according to the Herald.

Back in August, Governor Inslee wrote to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz asking the department to consider placing a small modular reactor at Hanford to help with growing power requirements for environmental cleanup.

By Ralph Varabedian of the LA Times 


Two U.S. senators angered by the firing of whistle-blower Walter Tamosaitis from the contaminated Hanford, Wash., nuclear site sharply criticized the U.S. secretary of Energy on Wednesday.

Tamosaitis, an engineer, had raised safety concerns two years ago about the design of a plant that is intended to turn radioactive waste into glass. After that, San Francisco-based URS Corp. took away his staff and assigned him to a basement office without furniture or a telephone.

Last week, Tamosaitis was laid off in what the company called a cost-cutting move. His defenders called it retaliation.

This week, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to Energy SecretaryErnest J. Moniz to say that Tamosaitis’ dismissal would set a bad precedent and set back efforts to improve the department’s safety culture.

Tamosaitis once ran a research group of 100 scientists at the Hanford site and had worked 44 years for URS. His dismissal was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.



Construction of the $12.3-billion waste-processing plant was halted after federal investigators validated his concerns.

Hanford, a former nuclear weapons site, is the nation’s most contaminated property. It holds 56 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge in underground tanks, some of which are leaking. The complex sits on a plateau above the Columbia River, which could be threatened if the waste is not contained. The Energy Department is supervising the cleanup.

Tamosaitis’ dismissal came days after Moniz issued a statement affirming his commitment to safety and the protection of whistle-blowers.

Wyden, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural resources, told Moniz that the dismissal “can only be seen as perpetuating a culture that would plunge DOE employees and contractors who dare to raise safety issues into the deep freeze or worse.”

Wyden noted that URS was demanding that Tamosaitis release the company from any legal claims arising from his termination to get a severance package.

Markey demanded that Moniz reverse Tamosaitis’ firing and alluded to URS retaliation against other employees.

“Simply put, if you do not take immediate action to halt URS’s retaliatory dismissal of Dr. Tamosaitis and ongoing retaliatory acts against other employees … who have raised safety concerns, your efforts to improve the department’s safety culture will lack all credibility,” Markey wrote. “Please do what is necessary, and what is right, to protect a truly heroic individual.”

The senators’ letters were disclosed by Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group in Washington state.

(CNN) — U.S. inspectors are investigating a possible leak at the Hanford nuclear site after an elevated contamination reading was found in a leak detection pit, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.

The elevated reading, however, doesn’t pose an immediate public health threat, Inslee said.

“This is most disturbing news for Washington,” the governor said in a statement. “The discovery was made during a routine pumping outside the tank when pumps are also surveyed for radioactivity.”

The leak detection pit is located outside and adjacent to a double-shell tank identified as AY-102, the governor said.

“It is not clear yet whether that contamination is coming directly from the outer shell of the AY-102 but it must be treated with the utmost seriousness,” Inslee said.

The U.S. Department of Energy has assigned engineers to analyze the source of contamination through sampling and video inspection, a process that could take several days, the governor said.

The Hanford site, which once produced plutonium for atomic weapons, borders the Columbia River.

“Given the relatively early detection of this potential leak, the river is not at immediate risk of contamination should it be determined that a leak has occurred outside the tank,” Inslee said.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz just paid his first visit to the Hanford site on Wednesday.hanfordtanks

Even before learning of a possible leak, Inslee told Moniz he has “serious concerns regarding the pace of addressing the leaking tanks,” Inslee said.

“We will be insisting on an acceleration of remediation of all the tanks, not just AY-102. USDOE has a legal obligation to clean up Hanford and remove or treat that waste, and we ensure that legal obligation is fulfilled,” the governor said



RICHLAND, Wash. — Layoff notices were sent Monday to 235 Hanford nuclear cleanup site workers because of sequestration, or automatic federal budget cuts, the Tri-City Herald reported. The last day for most laid-off workers will be March 28.

In addition, other workers may lose their jobs as Department of Energy contractors cut back on work to subcontractors.

Most of the 235 jobs cut were union positions, the Tri-City Herald said, but the layoffs also included 27 nonunion positions. Several contractors are cutting spending by furloughing about 2,500 nonunion workers — requiring them to take paid or unpaid time off — but that cannot be required of union workers under collective bargaining agreements.