RICHLAND, Wash. — New deadlines for emptying some Hanford nuclear waste tanks might not be met if the government takes steps to better protect workers from chemical vapors.
The Department of Energy requested that its tanks contractor look at the potential impact of a union demand that workers use air respirators not only within the boundaries of Hanford tank farms, but also in an expanded area of 200 feet beyond tank farm fences.
As a result, contractor Washington River Protection Solutions concluded that emptying nuclear waste from five leak-prone tanks may not be completed until 2021 instead of in 2020.
Another nine tanks in two tank farms may not be emptied until March 2026 instead of by 2024.
The new deadlines were set by a federal judge six months ago after the 2010 court-enforced consent decree was revised because the DOE was unable to meet many of the remaining deadlines for emptying certain tanks and building a so-called vitrification plant to treat the waste for permanent disposal.
Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste stored in 177 underground tanks from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
The DOE has notified the Washington State Department of Ecology of the possible issue with deadlines “in the spirit of cooperation and transparency,” Kevin Smith, DOE Office of River Protection manager at Hanford, said in a letter sent last week.
The state of Washington regulates Hanford tank waste and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to the consent decree.
“The federal government is offering more excuses,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said in a statement Tuesday. His staff said that he was speaking on his own behalf rather than in his role as the attorney for the Department of Ecology.
“Using the safety of workers as an excuse for missing more deadlines is pathetic,” he said. “When a federal court imposed a timetable for the cleanup in March, was (the Department of) Energy assuming it could only be met at the expense of workers’ health?”
DOE is asking its tank farm contractor for more information as it evaluates the preliminary report and has not indicated that it agrees with the report’s findings.
In June, the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, an umbrella group for 15 Hanford unions, demanded that DOE take actions to better protect Hanford workers from breathing in chemical vapors associated with Hanford tank waste. Dozens of workers have reported being sickened by the vapors.
Measures included using supplied air respirators within the fence lines around all tank farms and also in a zone of 200 feet outside the fence line if work was being done that increased the likelihood that vapors might be released.
In July, HAMTC halted all work within tank farm boundaries unless workers inside the tank farm fence line were wearing supplied air respirators.
DOE responded by asking contractors to evaluate the impacts to work and the budget for work of requiring supplied air respirators for work both in the tank farms and work within 200 feet outside the fence line.
The contractor’s preliminary report concluded that the 200-foot extension was the major issue.
It estimated that the expanded vapor control area could add $512 million to $769 million in total costs, which is in addition to costs of up to $345 million for additional use of supplied air respirators.