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Double Shell Tanks

Tank Farm Hanford Site, Richland, WA.

        Varying in size from 55,000 gallons to 1.4 million gallons, 149 of the tanks are single-walled; of these, 67 have leaked or are suspected of leaking over 1 million gallons into the soil. All are buried in the ground 15 feet below the surface and encased in concrete up to 15 feet thick. In the 50’s, cooling pipes around some of the tanks broke during a freeze. Self boiling, hot thermal gasses inside the tanks could be heard banging and shaking them.

        A frantic effort was made to stir this explosive stew before the tanks exploded, spreading this deadly material over a large area. A mixing device was created that was lowered into the tank. Today most of all the tanks still require mixing at a cost of almost $1.2 million per tank, per mix, to keep hot spots from developing within the tanks that can become a critical mass and explode the tank. (Critical mass can be attained with as little as 25lbs. of HL RA material. A spontaneous fusion chain reaction can occur, releasing a lethal shower of neutron and gamma radiation.) Explosive gasses like hydrogen form within this liquid that is sometimes the consistency of peanut butter.

      • High Level Radio Active waste.

        Because of the decaying effect that RA material has on metal from constantly being bombarded with neutrons, tank life expectancy has been cut in half from 25 to 12 years on the older tanks, and, because there are no drains on the tanks, the material is difficult to transfer. Originally, the contents within the different tanks were in general kept separate, as there are a great many different kinds of volatile chemicals and RA materials involved. But once the tanks began to leak, it all became mixed together as they pumped from leaking to non-leaking tanks.

        The contents can vary greatly in different areas, even within the tanks themselves. Some of the older tanks that we looked at were located in fields and had thick, rough concrete access lids while the new tank farms had concrete platforms and secured metal access lids. Tanks built after the mid-70’s are double-walled and made of combination of stainless steel and titanium. I was told they will probably last twice as long as the early tanks. There are 28 of those, the ones we looked at holding 1.4 million gallons each.

        Many of the RA materials in these tanks and those which were poured on the ground when the tank space wasn’t available, will take over a million years to decay - Plutonium 239 - and others can take even longer. Meanwhile the potential for a catastrophic explosion is always nearby.

        The "B" building is also in Area 200 (letter designations were given to the buildings for security reasons), where there are over 1,900 2 foot long cylindrical containers standing on end in racks 15 feet under water. Each contains extremely high concentrations of Strontium 90 and Cesium 137 isotopes that were removed from some of the HL RA storage tanks in order to reduce their heat and make them less volatile. So strong is the radiation from these containers that they glow a bright blue.

        Over 100 million curies have collected inside the building itself, in the walls and ventilation system. I was told that a 60-second unprotected exposure inside this building would be lethal.

        The K-basins are located on the northern edge of Hanford. Just a few hundreds yards from the Columbia river are two large concrete tanks 125 feet long and 67 feet wide. Inside the tanks are 4.6 million pounds of highly-radiated spent uranium rods containing plutonium(80 percent of the DOE’s inventory), some corroding and crumbling, that have spilled their contents into the protective water.

        K East and K West Basins, located in Hanford's 100 K Area (adjacent to the K East and K West Plutonium Production Reactors), house nearly 80% of DOE's nationwide inventory of spent nuclear fuel. These reactors were shut down in 1970-71. The two rectangular concrete pools are about 38 meters (125 feet) long and 20 meters (67 feet) wide. Each basin is filled with five meters (16 feet) of water to provide a radiation shield for facility workers.

        The fuel storage basins for K East and K West, built in the early 1950's, were designed to operate for 20 years. Spent fuel was stored in each reactor's own basin until it was moced by railcars to the PUREX plant. There it was dissolved to begin the chemical separations process.

        The tanks themselves are rusting and deteriorating rapidly. Sixteen feet of radiation-shielding water covers the rods to protect workers in the area. They have leaked over 15 million gallons of HL RA liquid, containing plutonium, strontium, cesium, tritium and other radionuclides, that is slowly seeping into the river.

        I counted about 80 fishing boats just beyond the tanks that beautiful sunny day. As we walked away from this area an armed guard drove up to see what we were doing.

        After 50 years of dumping more than 150 billion gallons of HL and LL liquid RA waste on the ground, and after 16 million gallons of HL leaks, the waste has traveled down 250 feet to ground water in Area 200 and moved to the east 15 miles in a plume that covers 200 square miles and is seeping in a 10 mile long front into the Columbia River. I counted over 100 fishing boats in a one mile section of this front.

        Six other ground water locations are contaminated with HL and LL RA waste, three of which are seeping into the Columbia on the northern edge.

        Millions of dollars have been spent on water filtration facilities that pump up chemically contaminated ground water, filtering it through a series of carbon filters and returning it to the ground where it is once again re-contaminated by the super saturated soils.

        In November 1994, the Tri-Party Agreement regulatory agencies formulated the facility decommissioning process. The process defines the approach the DOE, RL, and involved regulatory agencies will use to take a facility from operational status to its final disposition at Hanford.

        The primary objective of decontamination & decommissioning is to eliminate potential environmental risks, human health risks, and safety hazards by accelerating decommissioning work on highly deteriorated surplus and inactive facilities on the Hanford Site.

        With the expense of containment being so high, attempts to deal with earthquake vulnerability is probably out of the question. An earthquake here is inevitable and the potential for a calamity exists that could leave a large portion of the United States uninhabitable.

        Some of the buried tanks holding 55 million gallons of HL RA material could split, dumping their loads into the soil where, without the ability to stir or neutralize it, a spontaneous fusion chain reaction could occur, releasing a lethal shower of neutron and gamma radiation.

        At the "B" building where the rods containing strontium and cesium are stored, containment pools could crack and lose their protective water. There, too, spontaneous fusion could take place as the rods now lay in a jumbled mass on the pool’s bottom. The K-basin tanks could split, spilling millions gallons of RA liquid almost directly into the Columbia river, while at the same time uncovering the crumbling, spent uranium rods with the same disastrous results.

        Contaminated reactors and processing buildings might crack, allowing their RA contents out and the elements in. Dust from RA surface soils would be raise and carried by the wind - a catastrophe of unimaginable size and scope.

        On Friday, Tom Grumbly, under-secretary for the DOE, came in to proclaim Area 1100 clean, the first site at Hanford to be taken off the EPA superfund list. He remarked on how wonderful it would be in ten years when all of Hanford would be clean and turned over for private use.

        No mention was made that it was a truck maintenance and storage location and not contaminated with RA materials. Area 1100, now deemed safe and clean, will be turned over to the Port of Benton to be leased or sold to private developers.

        I thought about the 55 million gallons of RA material in the Tank Farms, billions of tons in the buildings, cribs and soil, and the 200 square mile plume.

        No, all of Hanford won’t be cleaned up in ten years or even a thousand years. There isn’t enough money in the world to do it, nor any place to put the waste. Where do you put trillions of cubic feet of RA soil and water? Parts of Hanford will have to be fenced off and declared a "National Sacrifice Area" for many thousand of years. It will have to decay on its own.

        By the end of this year, nine billion EPA superfund dollars will have been spent here with little to show for it. The clean-up consists of mainly hurrying from one serious situation to another and trying to keep it from getting out of hand. In between "containment" is worked on by the over 14,000 employees. Another $100 billion is expected to be spent here in coming years.

        With that kind of money flowing into this community of 140,000, the building boom is on again. All the giant retailers and malls are here, and three golf courses and large housing tracts are going up.

        Little fear of Hanford exists in this very conservative, patriotic community after 50 years of being told "there’s nothing to worry about," and where almost every person’s job is connected to Hanford.

        On what used to be part of the exclusionary zone at Hanford and only about five miles southwest of Area 200, an industrial park has been laid out next to the alfalfa fields. Across the road is a large up-scale housing development of more than 3,000 homes, including a golf course called Horn Rapids that winds its way among them. Motorhomes, boats and kids’ bikes are in the driveways. On the back of a brochure promoting home sales is the following:

        The Yakima river meanders through an unspoiled landscape, bends and cascades over rocky shallows, and rising above the water is a stretch of land that takes it name from this work of nature, Horn Rapids, a place unlike any other.

        On Friday a hot (RA) mouse set off alarms at the food bank building, where donated food is sent that has been collected from other onsite locations. It is then distributed to other offsite areas and given away to the mostly Mexican farm workers. The mouse was trapped alive by the special RA mouse/animal patrol and anesthetized, and an autopsy was conducted. They could tell by the RA isotopes it had absorbed that it had probably come from Area 200, 15 miles away, but they weren’t sure how. Most likely, it had arrived here in the boxes of food donated by the workers. Food will no longer be collected from Area 200.

        All roadkill and other animals found dead at Hanford, like the deer and three coyotes I had seen earlier, are quickly picked up and inspected for the extent of RA contamination and its effects.

        The wind whips up again as I drive past Area 200 for the last time heading towards Richland, blowing dust into the air and creating sand dunes next to the road. Another coyote dashes across the road in front of me, probably going to look for lunch at the Horn Rapids housing development on my right. The words from the brochure come back to me now: "this work of nature, a place unlike any other." The spirit of Dr. Strangelove is alive and well at Hanford. xxx

        News Note: Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1997: Hanford Nuclear Reservation: The Department of Energy released a report detailing the May 14, 1997, chemical explosion of a 400-gallon storage tank that released plutonium and other hazardous chemicals in a yellow-orange air-borne plume that contaminated several workers, as well as spreading offsite and across a public highway. In addition, the DOE admitted a complete failure of their emergency-response plan and reaction.

        Alan Sussex | MMM Files | to the top