The private company that manages nuclear waste tanks at Hanford spent millions in taxpayer funds over a period of a year despite evidence that the work would never be used.
Documents obtained by KING 5 show that the federal government’s prime contractor-- Washington River Protection Solutions -- spent as much as $14.2 million on work to prepare one tank to serve as the primary feed for Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant.
The tank -- AY-102 -- was chosen to be the first tank used to gather and mix waste from dozens of other tanks at the huge nuclear reservation in southeastern Washington. From there, the liquid waste would be piped to Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant [WTP] to be converted into stable glass logs for long-term storage. The WTP is under construction but is riddled with design and technical problems. It is uncertain when the plant will be finished or operational. Until that happens, the 28 double shell tanks at the site, including AY-102, are expected to keep the radioactive and chemically contaminated nuclear by-products safely stored underground.
But starting in October 2011, leak detection instruments and other scientific evidence showed that for the first time ever at Hanford, one of those double shell tanks was breaking down. Nuclear waste from AY-102 was leaking into the tank's annulus -- the two-foot-wide hollow space that separates the tank's inner and outer walls. While that evidence was gathered, however, WRPS did not do a thorough inspection to confirm the leak. Instead, the company pressed on with the original plan of preparing the tank as an important waste feeder. The company used millions in government funds to continue feed preparation work on the tank, work the company earned bonus awards on.
“We knew we should change direction after the instrumentation showed the tank was leaking in 2011,” said WRPS instrument technician Mike Geffre who first discovered the leak. “There was no way it would ever be used as a feed tank but instead we wasted a year of designing when we could have been using that time and money to investigate using another tank.”
The leak, confirmed to the public only in late October, 2012, rendered much of that work useless. The type of mixing work that the tank would be used for could potentially make the leak worse, which could lead to spilling large volumes of radioactive waste into the tank annulus where it would be exposed to the tank's outer wall and, eventually, the surrounding soil.
AY-102 already contains some of the most dangerous radioactive elements. The sludge and liquid in it contain radioactive isotopes of plutonium, americium, strontium and cesium. The 865,000 gallons of waste in this tank is considered the most hazardous of all at Hanford, in part, because of the extremely high heat load sitting at the bottom of the tank due to the amount of Strontium-90 in it.
In April, the Department of Energy told KING 5 that a total of $2.4 million had been spent in fiscal year 2012 on "infrastructure" work in the tank farm that contains AY-102 for the purpose of preparing to feed waste to the WTP. But documents written by the federal agency’s contractor, WRPS, and obtained by KING 5, show far more tax dollars were spent on the project before it was finally shut down. The report shows the 2012 “cost to date” for AY-102 design work, project management and support equaled $5.1 million. In addition, the report details demonstration work to prepare waste feed delivery for AY-102. A mixing and sampling demonstration was needed to show that the tank, with its upgrades, would effectively mix and transfer waste. According to the WRPS document, work for the AY-102 demonstration in 2012 equaled $10.8 million. In all, the records show approximately $14-million was spent. Much of that money was used for work that cannot be used because of the unique nature of the construction of AY-102 and its contents.
Department of Energy officials failed to explain why the spending numbers KING 5 found for work on AY-102 were so different, maintaining that they had "confirmed the numbers previously provided [to KING 5] are accurate for dollars spent on physical construction for infrastructure upgrades at the AY/AZ tank farms."
The agency said further inquiries needed to be directed to WRPS. For its part, the contractor asked KING 5 which documents the reporters utilized to come up with the findings. After providing that information to WRPS the company failed to answer any questions.
The wasted work came even as Hanford faced spending constraints due to the federal budget sequester.
"We don't have a dime to waste at Hanford," said Theresa Labriola, an environmental attorney and Hanford Coordinator for the citizen group Columbia Riverkeeper based in Oregon. "This undermines the public's confidence in clean up when they hear about waste. They wonder, 'What's going on at Hanford?'"
Columbia Riverkeeper says budgets have been cut for important cleanup efforts, such as treating contaminated groundwater at Hanford that could ultimately reach the Columbia River.
Even after the AY-102 leak was confirmed to the public on October 22, WRPS continued to spend taxpayer dollars on work rendered unneeded by the leak. The work drew criticism from the Department of Energy, which sent two letters to WRPS directing the company to "ramp down and pause" the work and then to "stop the design development" because using AY-102 as the feeder tank was "no longer feasible."
A report co-authored later by a WRPS employee conceded that stopping work on readying the tank to feed waste to the WTP should have been "implied or evident." The assessment went on to opine that “WRPS’s response to the customer (the US Department of Energy) was not very intuitive.”
“They [WRPS] were putting all of their eggs in one basket on this tank to be the feed tank,” said Geffre. “If they would have listened to their equipment and what some of us employees were telling them in 2011, that money could have been saved and used on a project with a real purpose.”
The federal government spent $2.2 billion on all Hanford work in the last budget year, but sequestration that took effect earlier this year cut some of the overall Hanford funding, resulting in some furloughs and layoffs. Even if the federal budget picture improves this year or next, spent projections made by the Department of Energy show that billions per year will be spent at Hanford well into the century -- $114 billion in today's dollars by 2090. Already, taxpayers have spent more than $30 billion on the Hanford cleanup since the late 1980s.
"Every dime that is wasted is money that should be spent on successful cleanup operations," said Hanford Advisory Board member Dan Serres. "The cleanup is too big and too important to be wasting even a dime."
Watch the series: Hanford's Dirty Secrets