US nuclear board warns of explosion risk

2013-04-03 09:01
In this 23 March 2004 photo, workers at the tank farms on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation measure for radiation and the presence of toxic vapours. (File, AP)

In this 23 March 2004 photo, workers at the tank farms on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation measure for radiation and the presence of toxic vapours. (File, AP)

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Yakima - Underground tanks that hold a stew of toxic, radioactive waste at America's most contaminated nuclear site pose a possible risk of explosion, a nuclear safety board said in advance of confirmation hearings for the next leader of the Energy Department.

State and federal officials have long known that hydrogen gas could build up inside the tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, leading to an explosion that would release radioactive material. The Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recommended additional monitoring and ventilation of the tanks last fall, and federal officials were working to develop a plan to implement the recommendation.

The board expressed those concerns again on Monday to US Senator Ron Wyden, who is chairperson of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and had sought the board's perspective about cleanup at Hanford.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. It spends billions of dollars to clean up the 1518km² site neighbouring the Columbia River, the southern border between Washington and Oregon and the Pacific Northwest's largest waterway.

Federal officials have said six underground tanks at the site are leaking into the soil, threatening the groundwater, and technical problems have delayed construction of a plant to treat the waste for long-term safe disposal.

Those issues are likely to come up during confirmation hearings next week for Energy Secretary-nominee Ernest J Moniz. The fears of explosion and contamination could give Washington and Oregon officials more clout as they push for cleanup of the World War II-era site.

Gas buildup

Central to the cleanup is the removal of 212 million litres of highly radioactive, toxic waste left from plutonium production from underground tanks. Many of the site's single-shell tanks, which have just one wall, have leaked in the past, and state and federal officials announced in February that six such tanks are leaking anew.

The nuclear safety board warned about the risk of explosion to Wyden, who wanted comment on the safety and operation of Hanford's tanks, technical issues that have been raised about the design of a plant to treat the waste in those tanks, and Hanford's overall safety culture.

In addition to the leaks, the board noted concerns about the potential for hydrogen gas buildup within a tank, in particular those with a double wall, which contain deadly waste that was previously pumped out of the leaking single-shell tanks.

"All the double-shell tanks contain waste that continuously generates some flammable gas," the board said. "This gas will eventually reach flammable conditions if adequate ventilation is not provided."

All of the tanks are actively ventilated, which means they have blowers and fans to prevent a buildup of hydrogen gas, and those systems are monitored to ensure they are operating as intended, Energy Department spokesperson Carrie Meyer said.

"DOE is absolutely committed to ensuring the safety of Hanford's underground tanks," Meyer said.

The US government spends about $2bn annually on Hanford cleanup - roughly one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally.

Read more on:    us  |  nuclear

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