The private companies working to clean up nuclear waste at the Hanford Site operate under contracts with the federal government that don't reward them for reporting problems.
This creates a dangerous financial incentive that could delay responses to leaks of highly radioactive waste, according to one of the nation's top nuclear policy experts.
"Reporting leaks in high-level waste tanks has been frowned upon at this site for decades," said Bob Alvarez, a former presidential adviser on nuclear policy. “There’s this whole dynamic that is built up where people are totally discouraged from raising concerns, especially those that I call have a show-stopping nature to them, such as leaking high-level radioactive waste tanks.”
KING 5 reported last month that one private company working at the Hanford Site discounted for nearly a year mounting evidence of a leak in 241-AY-102, a double-shell tank holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of some of the most radioactive and chemically contaminated waste in the world.
“I think the Department of Energy and the contractors who work for them are riddled with honest, decent, hardworking, competent people, and I don’t mean to paint everyone with this brush,” said Alvarez. “The problem is that a lot of these competent, conscientious people are stuck in a corrupt system that needs to be fundamentally changed.”
On August 1, 2012, ten months after the first indicator that Tank AY-102 was leaking, the company -- Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) -- initiated a regularly scheduled video inspection during which workers spotted suspicious material on the floor of the tank's annulus, the hollow space between the two walls of the tank.
Two-and-a-half months later -- 12 months after the first leak indication -- WRPS and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) confirmed and made public the leak in 241-AY-102. During that delay, deadly waste continued to leak into the space separating the tank's inner and outer shells.
Contracting policies used by the government could explain that delay, said Alvarez, now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.
"Why are these contractors doing what they're doing? It's all purely economically motivated, of course."
Contractors like WRPS are eligible for performance-based incentive money and award fees for finishing certain projects on time and on budget as outlined in their agreements with the government. During the months that red flags warned that Tank AY-102 was leaking, WRPS specifically stood to earn the most bonus money for completing work transferring nuclear waste from underground single-shell tanks at Hanford's C Farm.
Alvarez and other experts who spoke with KING 5 said investigating and reporting the leak in AY-102 earlier on could have jeopardized the C Farm work, as WRPS may have had to shift resources -- personnel and equipment -- to deal with it.
"Where reward is given for only presenting good news, not bad news, then you have these problems. It's just that simple," Alvarez said. "It boils down to making money in a way where there's the least amount of hassle to it."
A leaking tank would certainly be one of those hassles, Alvarez added. "It's a big time hassle because then it requires you to change priorities. It requires a rethinking of what you’re doing. It requires real soul searching about the competence of your work and maybe losing (bonus) money and maybe losing your contract.”
WRPS secured a $23 million bonus from the DOE for work performed in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2012 -- nearly the same time period that numerous red flags pointing to a leak in AY-102 were discounted by the company. The $23 million was 98 percent of the available award money for the year and one of the biggest bonuses ever paid to WRPS. (In the previous year the company was awarded a $33 million bonus, or 99 percent of the potential amount the federal government could have awarded it.)
“We have a very serious problem with Hanford and we always have with the Energy Department and its contractors where the incentive to get a contract performance award, your cash award, for doing something at the end of the year outweighs the safety and environmental considerations,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), who also serves as executive director of the citizen watchdog group, Heart of America Northwest.
He added, “Very clearly they were aimed at getting their award money, their bonus, which would have been jeopardized by saying ‘Hey! We have a leak over here.’”
Dept. of Energy not answering
KING 5 asked the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of River Protection, if the payment structure discourages contractors from coming forward with problems. The reporters also asked if the federal government has methods in place to encourage the companies they hire to investigate and report set backs. Media professionals from the DOE didn't answer.
The company denied that it ignored evidence of the AY-102 leak. WRPS declined KING 5 requests to interview President Mike Johnson or any other official on camera, and insisted that all its decision-making about AY-102 was based on sound science and concern for worker safety.
"Experience gained over decades of tank farm operations led us to believe that a small amount of rainwater, not waste, was collecting in the AY-102 annulus. This was based on recent heavy rainfall, the discovery of water intrusion pathways, known low levels of radioactive cross-contamination between the primary tank and the annulus, and readings from the leak detection system," wrote a WRPS representative in a statement to KING 5 last month.
"Worker safety was a strong motivator. Making an unscheduled annulus entry into a tank holding 850,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste, when a later inspection was already scheduled posed an unnecessary risk to our employees."
"There was no threat to the environment, the public or our workers because of the small amount of any liquid indicated by the [leak monitoring device], its location within the sealed annulus, and the double-filtered ventilation system on the annulus, waiting until a scheduled video inspection in August , posed no appreciable risk."
KING 5 asked via email if the pressure to make the price-based incentives for the C Farm project or other work by the end of the reporting period (Sept. 30, 2012) had any bearing on the company’s decision-making on AY-102. A WRPS representative answered with the following statement:
“Following the August 2012 visual inspection of AY-102, the necessary resources were available to perform the leak assessment, while other work such as C Farm retrieval was completed, and we maintained worker safety and environmental protection,” wrote Jerry Holloway, WRPS External Affairs Manager. “Regulatory and client (DOE) notifications about AY-102 were made as needed.”
Threat to public health
The U.S. government began producing plutonium at Hanford to fuel the world’s first nuclear bomb in 1943. After World War II, production continued to build up the country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. Production stopped in the late 1980s and Hanford’s mission changed to strictly a cleanup effort. That job continues at a cost so far of $35 billion.
The fact that the waste at Hanford is so hazardous should encourage the government to change how contractors are rewarded, experts told KING 5.
"You would think the system would reward people to report problems, to be proactive," Alvarez said. “The management is not at all motivated by revealing problems.”
In the case of the AY-102 leak, if waste escapes the tank's outer shell it will ultimately contaminate the underlying groundwater and begin migrating to the nearby Columbia River.
"We're really talking about protecting one of the nation's fresh water streams," Alvarez said. "This is really what the bottom line is, and that's a national issue, an issue of national importance."
And if that waste gets into the environment, the threat to human health can't be underestimated.
"If we had a coffee cup of waste from that tank sitting here between us since we started this interview, we'd both be dead now," said Pollet.
Many red flags
The first leak detection alarm from Tank AY-102 sounded on October 9, 2011. Per protocol, WRPS reported the alarm to federal and state officials, citing that rainwater was the suspected cause. On October 26, an alarm sounded when radiation readings spiked on an air monitor sampling the annulus space. The spike showed the highest level of radioactive particles ever seen in this space by current employees.
On March 10, 2012, a piece of equipment became glued to the bottom of the tank, suggesting to employees in the field it was stuck in dried waste. Other warning signs included readings of radioactive contamination from the tank space where none would be expected on October 12, 2011, May 24, 2012, and August 10, 2012. The leak was confirmed by the DOE and WRPS through a press release on October 22, 2012.
Making the alarm go away
On October 27, 2011, WRPS site managers directed employee Mike Geffre to conduct a "zero reset" on a part of the detection system monitoring the tank that gave off the first warnings that a leak was occurring. The reset meant that the equipment would no longer sense the leak -- akin to changing a home thermostat to stop the furnace from clicking on as often.
“I don’t think it was the right thing to do. I told them (the managers) that. I told them this isn’t right and that by resetting to zero it just makes it appear that there’s nothing wrong,” said Geffre. “Now the instrument was set at a deceptive range to null and void what was in there. I did it under protest.”
The company's own records, included in a November 2012 report about the leak, show that the very next day, on October 28, the liquid had risen enough to again put the leak detection system into alarm. But that didn't happen. If the equipment were set properly the alarm would have gone off again and WRPS would have had to report that to government regulators as they had done the first time it sounded.
"Each one of these alarm events is important because it creates a record," said Geffre. "I think it would have been huge because another alarm would have started more dialogue and questions. The Department of Energy would have hopefully said 'you've got to investigate'. And by this point it hadn't rained in 18 days, so how could they keep calling it rainwater?"
Lawmaker calls for investigation
Experts consulted for this report said the October 27 reset stands out as one of the most significant events in the months leading up to confirmation of the leak.
“The federal EPA and the Washington state Department of Ecology should have an investigation with the attorney general into all the records of what was known, what was reported by the tank farm line workers to management and what went on behind closed doors in management to say, 'let’s call this rainwater, let’s not investigate it,'” said Rep. Pollet.
"That's where it begins to look and smell like a very deliberate cover up rather than ignorance and there is no excuse. Ignorance is not an excuse when dealing with something as deadly as this."