Report: Feds need to do more to prevent failures at Hanford

The federal government needs to do more to prevent the failure of radioactively contaminated facilities at an aging nuclear weapons production site in Washington state

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The federal government needs to do more to prevent the failure of radioactively contaminated facilities at an aging nuclear weapons production site in Washington state, the Government Accountability Office said this week.

The partial collapse in 2017 of a tunnel containing radioactive waste from the Cold War on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation signaled problems with how the U.S. Department of Energy dealt with aging infrastructure, the GAO report said.

Specifically, the report raised questions about the way obsolete facilities were evaluated, monitored and given priority for eventual cleanup and removal.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and a frequent Hanford critic, asked the Energy Department to take additional steps to ensure the safety of some 10,000 workers on the Hanford site and residents of the surrounding Tri-Cities area.

"Although DOE has agreed to implement all of GAO's recommendations, I do not believe this is sufficient to ensure protection of workers at the site and the citizens in the region,'' Wyden wrote to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette.

Wyden asked him to outline by March 20 specific steps the agency will take “to ensure that there will not be any unexpected failures of containment at legacy radioactive waste facilities at Hanford.”

Wyden and colleagues requested the GAO report after the partial collapse in 2017 of an aging tunnel that stored railroad cars loaded with radioactive waste.

Hanford was created by the Manhattan Project during World War II to beat Nazi Germany to the atomic bomb. The giant nuclear site made the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of the the war. It went on to make about two-thirds of the nation's plutonium for the nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.

That work generated an enormous amount of nuclear waste, and Hanford for the past three decades has been involved in cleaning up that waste.

In May of 2017, a portion of the roof of a storage tunnel at the closed Plutonium-Uranium Extraction Plant collapsed. Thousands of workers across the site, which is half the size of Rhode Island, were ordered to take cover indoors. Benton and Franklin counties activated their emergency operations centers. Fear spread through the region in south-central Washington state.

However, 8 feet (2.4 meters) of dirt that lay atop the tunnel fell into the hole created by the partial collapse, preventing radioactive particles from becoming airborne.

The tunnel stored eight railroad cars loaded with obsolete equipment contaminated with high levels of radiation.

The Department of Energy concluded that wooden timbers used to build the tunnel in the 1950s had likely deteriorated and the tunnel was pumped full of a cement-like grout to stabilize the structure.

But the GAO found the agency did not do a full investigation to determine the underlying causes of the partial collapse.

If an analysis had been done, it may have determined why the tunnel failure could not be predicted, the GAO said.

"DOE would have had greater assurance that another, similar event will not take place at Hanford,'' the GAO said. Hanford has hundreds of buildings and sites still awaiting cleanup and disposition, a process that will take decades.

The Energy Department said that by the end of this year it would conduct the recommended analysis of why it missed the potential for the collapse of the tunnel.