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Over Easy: The McCluskey Room

2:59 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

On August 30, 1976, as Harold McCluskey and his wife Ella celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary before he reported to his night shift at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant as a chemical worker, neither of them knew that on that night, Harold would be involved in a spectacular, record-setting traumatic radiation accident so severe that he would be historically called “The Atomic Man,” nor did they know that the room where the accident would occur would be named “The McCluskey Room.” Indeed, they were unaware that Harold would be the subject of a Seattle Times article describing how his body in the room was “too hot to handle,” so he was “removed by remote control” and “put in a steel and concrete isolation chamber.”

The accident involved the explosion of an ion-exchange column containing about 100 g of 241 Americium, which is used (ironically) in smoke detectors. According to various reports, this amounts to 500 times the occupational standards lifetime limits.

Harold not only survived, due to miraculous or otherwise experimental interventional medicine, he lived another eleven years.

Earlier this month, Hanford and the government announced plans to go into the McCluskey Room and decontaminate it as part of their overall plan to clean and demolish the Plutonium Finishing Plant area of Hanford (see video). This is a hazardous endeavor requiring specialized suits, respirators and monitoring equipment, and the workers will have to exercise great care, planning, and training for their safety, as the McCluskey Room is one of the most hazardous sites under the Department of Energy’s purview.

In 1984, eight years after Mr. McCluskey’s accident, Margaret Mahar wrote an article for People that contained some direct quotes from Mr. McCluskey regarding what happened that night. He was performing an extraction process, to produce americium 241 that would be used in ionization smoke detectors. He realized that there would be an explosion, if he did so, so he called his boss and warned him.

Hanford workers had recently ended a strike and returned to work. McCluskey was concerned about the condition of the chemicals, given how they had been stored during the strike. Margaret Mahar wrote:

Americium, which is used in ionization smoke detectors, was extracted within an airtight steel ‘glove box,’ with McCluskey manipulating the controls from the outside. However, the vessel containing the active ingredient for the extraction process, americium-soaked resin, had remained in the cabinet throughout the strike.

McCluskey was uneasy about adding nitric acid to begin the extraction process. ‘They warned us when they built the plant,’ he recalls. ‘If we tried the process when the resin was even three months old, it would blow up.’ He called his boss and protested. ‘But when the boss called the powers that be, they said, “Go ahead.”‘ McCluskey, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, did not walk out the door. ‘I’m not a gambler. When you’ve only got a 12th-grade education and you’ve put nearly 30 years in a job, and you’re facing retirement….’

That Mr. McCluskey was put in a position where he was forced to make a decision to risk his life because he fears he will lose his job if he doesn’t, as he nears retirement, is so egregious it shocks the conscience. The article goes into the horrendous and quoted details of the accident that make you feel as if you have picked up and science fiction book. It also describes what life was really like for this man and his wife in the aftermath. His own neighbors no longer want to come to his home. He must to go to different barbers, because he is ruining their business. His life is in ruins. His health is in constant spiraling decline. Experimental medicine. Heart attacks. He can no longer hunt or fish. He is losing his eyesight. He listens to the Bible on tape.

If you read the cleaned up articles today, you would think that Mr. McCluskey was injured on the job due to an unforeseeable accident and he recovered to live a full and happy life eventually dying of natural causes.

The truth is quite different, and all that you can imagine about the government’s behavior at that time getting worse is most certainly true. Mrs. Ella McClusky was reduced to declining the government an autopsy report on her husband when he died, because they were trying to balk at paying up for medical expenses, for being in the wrong. This is as surreal as it gets:

An investigation into the explosion confirmed that the resin mixture had become unstable exactly as McCluskey had warned. He sued the Energy Research and Development Administration for $975,000, settling in 1977 for $275,000 plus lifetime medical expenses. Even then, according to Ella, the government balked at paying up. A feisty former teacher and nurse, she took over: ‘I told them they wouldn’t be able to do an autopsy when he died. They said that wasn’t fair. Then they paid.’

and:

The atomic man doesn’t express anger, but Ella sometimes does. ‘The Hanford and Department of Energy spokespeople tried to make it seem as though it was just an industrial accident, like someone falling in a sawmill,’ she says. ‘It was a catastrophe that ruined Harold’s life.’

As you ponder what you might do if you were in Mr. McCluskey’s situation, remember that Donna Busche was the second Hanford whistleblower firing. What would you do?

To Ella and to Harold McCluskey, Thank you so much, for taking a stand for safety, integrity and grace, and never backing down.

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Over Easy: Workplace Climate of Retaliation at Hanford

4:39 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

177 Tanks at Hanford Site

On Monday, Hanford whistleblower Donna Busche filed a new complaint against her employer, Department of Energy (DOE) contractor Bechtel, alleging retaliation in the workplace after she voiced concerns over safety issues at the huge Cold War era contaminated site. She alleges “URS and Bechtel officials excluded her from meetings and belittled her authority.” She also alleges that “she has experienced continued harassment, isolation, exclusion, and unwarranted criticism as she tries to ensure that one of the largest environmental cleanup efforts in the world is completed safely.”

For Hanford history, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) summarizes:

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for one of the world’s
largest environmental cleanup projects: the treatment and disposal of
millions of gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste at its 586-square mile
Hanford Site in southeastern Washington State. A total of nine
nuclear reactors––including the world’s first operating large-scale reactor,
developed as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II––were
built at Hanford and operated until the late 1980s. The primary mission of
these reactors was to produce plutonium and other special nuclear
materials for DOE’s nuclear weapons program. Some of the large
volumes of hazardous and radioactive waste that resulted from nuclear
materials production was deposited directly into the ground in trenches,
injection wells, or other facilities designed to allow the waste to disperse
into the soil, and some was packaged into drums and other containers
and buried. The most dangerous waste was stored in 177 large
underground storage tanks. The underground tanks currently hold more
than 56 million gallons of this waste—enough to fill an area the size of a
football field to a depth of over 150 feet.

Although getting any real information from a layperson’s perspective is excruciating due to the secrecy of Hanford’s operations for decades, we do know a few things. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the western hemisphere, representing two thirds of our nation’s nuclear waste by volume. The government owns and operates the site, and it uses contractors who, for lack of better language, like money for nothing. Years ago, there was a plan to construct a waste treatment plant, to process the waste into a stable glass.

Things did not go according to plan. Apparently, that is where our most recent whistleblower comes in- Donna Busche was responsible for creating safety-type documents for the glass-making (vitrification) plant. But, she had safety concerns and she voiced them. Since this sort of thing made her the ‘enemy’ to the ilk who wanted to continue to rip people off as the tanks leak to the vicinity of the Columbia River, they made her workplace a living hell, it appears. Currently, there is no waste treatment plant in operation. Dates and numbers of dollars change from one day to the next: billions of dollars. Decades to completion. Meanwhile the toxic brew, the 56 million gallons of waste sits in tanks and there are leaks, when there were never supposed to be any leaks. The passing public is beginning to understand the extent of the betrayal; people expected cleanup and never dreamed of a toxic money pit.

The contamination continues to challenge the engineers. For example, the toxic liquid must be pumped from an underground tank to the vitrification plant. But, the pumping system failed during the emptying of C tank farm tank C-107, causing even more delay. There must be a working pumping system in place to empty the tanks, and this delay added to what amounts to a spectacular failure spanning decades, at Hanford, a site where we can ill-afford any more time, failure, or games.

The tanks are leaking, there is no waste treatment plant, money keeps disappearing, and now, for the cherry on top, the workers who are our last hope, are being harassed in the workplace if they demonstrate anything that might indicate the presence of a conscience. We already know, for example, that whistleblower Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, a nuclear engineer, was fired for voicing concerns, and we know that he got zero support from the new Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz.

The Hanford whistleblowers really are our source of information about the site issues. So far it looks as if Bechtel has demonstrated competence in little more than bullying its workers who express safety concerns in particular. This is also a clear illustration of the fox guarding the henhouse; the whisltleblower protection act appears to be pretty useless when the government owns the plant in question.

Related:

Hanford: Whistleblower files new complaint

Problems Seen Impeding Cleanup of Ex-U.S. Nuclear Weapons Site

Hanford nuclear cleanup slow, workers frustrated Read the rest of this entry →

Over Easy: Hanford’s 300 Area Cleanup Proposal Invites Public Comment

3:56 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

As problem-to-problem gridlock unfolds at Hanford with leaking radioactive waste storage tanks, Hanford is holding public meetings in Richland, WA and invites public comment, through August 16, 2013, regarding cleanup proposal for 300 Area. 300 Area is another part of the giant nuclear superfund site.

Hanford’s 300 Area covers 40 square miles along the Columbia River. 300 Area fabricated nuclear fuel for Hanford’s nine plutonium reactors (recall the steps in nuclear fuel manufacture to be mining/milling, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication). 300 Area was also an area of research into plutonium handling.

During these activities in the Cold War years,

They poured about 2 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste a day into sandy ponds and trenches right next to the Columbia River. Cleaning up buildings and material there has kept crews busy for 20 years.

One of the remaining jobs is to work on a 125-acre groundwater plume contaminated with uranium.

300 Area is a superfund priority site, along with 100 Area and 200 Area. The EPA explains that affected areas are groundwater, soil and sludges, surface water and air:

Groundwater is contaminated with uranium, volatile organic compounds, strontium-90, and tritium. Soils primarily contain uranium, cobalt-60, copper, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and chromium, but may also include other contaminants associated with research and development activities. DOE has detected uranium and TCE in groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River. People may be exposed to hazardous and radioactive substances through direct contact, accidental ingestion, and inhalation of contaminated particles, groundwater, soil, or surface water.

At first, the selected Orwellian remedy for cleanup of the above-described hot mess was “monitored natural attenuation,” which sounds an awful lot like “do nothing,” but this remedy was reevaluated, and more action was deemed appropriate. A lot of remove-treat-dispose has been done in 300 Area over the years, but at this stage 1) buildings will need to be demolished and removed before the soil underneath can be reached, but 2) the soil underneath some of the buildings is so highly radioactive that no worker can get anywhere close to the building to demolish it or remove the soil. Soil from underneath these buildings will need to be removed with remote equipment. Other buildings are deemed to be “high-risk, high-dose” for the workers, who must take extraordinary precautions.

The current plan, Department of Energy hydrologist Michael Thompson explains, is to “sequester that uranium in place.”

“In other words, chemically bind it up. We’re going to add phosphates to it. And the uranium then does not dissolve back into the groundwater and the groundwater will clean itself up within a reasonable amount of time,” he said.

Although I am no physicist, this sounds pretty good on the surface. Send that bad bad uranium a-packing once and for all with with a phosphate-and-nature deus ex machina. However, has such a thing ever been done successfully, on this scale, in the field?

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Over Easy: Hanford’s Radioactive Waste Storage Tank AY-102

3:59 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Rendering of Hanford's Double-Shell Tanks

Rendering of Hanford Double Shell Tank by RiverProtection on flickr

Newly appointed US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz is scheduled to be in southeastern Washington State today, for his first visit to the Hanford site. During his April confirmation hearing he told Oregon Senator Ron Wyden that it would be “unacceptable” to maintain the status quo regarding cleanup, at Hanford. With what has come to light only recently about various government contractors pissing up a rope while collecting bonuses as the tanks leak, this is a massive understatement.

Hanford weapons production reactors produced the plutonium for the Trinity implosion-design device fission test in the desert, the Fat Man atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki in 1945, and a nuclear arsenal that includes tens of thousands of warheads. Today, Hanford is home to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste, stored in 177 underground tanks, in sets of tank farms. The amount of waste at Hanford represents two thirds of the nuclear waste in the entire US.

The toxicity of the waste in Hanford tanks is such that the amount of sludge that fits onto the leg of a fruit fly is considered toxic. In fact, dozens of acres of the site have been shut down because fruit flies that first visited some sludge then went to the workers’ dining areas to dine on the food and so, the fruit flies had to be killed.

Hanford has two types of waste storage tanks: single shell and double shell. The single shell tanks that were designed to last twenty years are the oldest; they were mostly made in the 1940s and 1950s. They are made of an inner lining of steel surrounded by concrete, and 149 of them are in trouble. Half have failed and leaked upwards of a million gallons of radioactive liquid into the groundwater that leads to the Columbia River. There is no way to get to a leak underneath one of these giant tanks other than to remove it, and since the government has not shown a whole lot of excitement about doing this, these tanks are being monitored. There are currently six leakers among the single hull tanks.

What has come to the public’s attention recently, through this government report is that a newer double shell tank designed in the late 1960s to last much longer than the single shell tanks, tank AY-102 (in the AY double shell tank farm), is leaking to the annulus. The leak is likely due to some corrosion involving an enormous heat load at the bottom of this particular tank. The leak has escaped the inner wall of its heated home, and now challenges the outer wall of this tank. The annulus is the two-foot hollow space between the layers, and the outer wall is also the last wall. Tank AY-102 has been triaged to importance, because it was supposed to be a feeder tank that held a collection of toxic waste from other tanks, and then piped it to the Waste Treatment Plant for vitrification (processed into a solid and stable glass). AY-102 already holds more than 800,000 gallons of mixed liquid toxic waste.

The problems at the moment are 1) the Waste Treatment Plant does not exactly exist due to multiple design and technical problems and 2) It did not occur to anyone that AY-102, the feeder tank, would ever leak, but it did. Now, the government is saying that it will be another six years or so, before AY-102 can be pumped out. In October of 2011, leak detection instruments showed evidence of a leak, and an alarm went off. The government contractor had no plan in place for this. AY-102 contains, among other things, more of the byproduct Strontium-90 than any other tank at Hanford, and this byproduct has a tendency to sink to the bottom of the tank and then boil everything around it. There was no Alarm Response Procedure (ARP) in place, as the video here explains:

Not only was there no ARP in place from the contractor, the same contractor also spent millions of dollars for futile work to the tank, preparing it for being the ultimate feeder tank that it can never be. Both some of the workers for the contractor as well as the Department of Energy knew this, but the contractor pressed on with unnecessary work anyway. One can not help but assume that it was lucrative in this situation to fiddle while Rome burns.

While Dr. Moniz visits Hanford for the first time and the finger pointing begins, the Hanford ‘downwinders’ with cancer fight for reasonable settlements through the courts, but there is also this:

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Over Easy: The Treachery at Hanford

3:57 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

DOE Hanford B Reactor Today
DOE Hanford B Reactor, by United States Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons

As part of atomic weapons development during the secretive Manhattan Project, Hanford B Reactor at the Hanford site, produced the plutonium that filled the belly of the ‘Fat Man‘ atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. Hanford reached peak production during the Cold War years, and it also produced material for weapons during President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative in the early 80s.

In 1989, Hanford switched to cleanup efforts. While mostly decommissioned, the site hosts one nuclear power generating station, called the Columbia Generating Station, that has a boiling water reactor, supplied by General Electric (GE).

Hanford Nuclear Reservation remains the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere, and is a superfund site that, after nearly a quarter of a century has Pacific Northwest residents and officials pressing for answers. The amount of contamination is astonishing, involving 56 million gallons of liquid radioactive sludge in underground containers, six of which have been determined to be leaking. The cleanup is now estimated to take 40 years, at a cost of 100 billion dollars.

Hanford is located in Richland, in southeastern Washington State, at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. Due to the site’s location on the Columbia, residents are justifiably concerned for the future of the spectacular Columbia River and the Columbia River Valley. Commenting on the complexity of cleanup, the United States Environmental Protection Agency states:

The operations at Hanford created one of the largest and most complex cleanup projects in the U.S. Weapons production resulted in more than 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste, and over 130 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris. Approximately 475 billion gallons of contaminated water was discharged to the soil. Some of the contaminants have made it to groundwater under the site. Over 80 square miles of groundwater is contaminated to levels above groundwater protection standards.

To digress for a moment, it is nearly impossible to conceive of the magnitude of something we have not experienced. What do these numbers mean? Contemplating a billion of anything is like contemplating outer space; there is a point where the mind renders the numbers meaningless. Some EPA water trivia adds perspective to the stunning amount of waste:

Approximately 400 billion gallons of water are used in the United States per day.

Nearly one-half of the water used by Americans is used for thermoelectric power generation.

In one year, the average American residence uses over 100,000 gallons (indoors and outside).

It takes six and a half years for the average American residence to use the amount of water required to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool (660,000 gallons).

The United States Department of Energy (USDOE) oversees the bulk of the management for Hanford cleanup, and the US Environmental Protection Agency lists several government superfund site partners here. There are also various government contractors that manage the tank farms and other cleanup processes. Despite government and news agency statements to the contrary, residents have come to realize that: 1) cleanup has not progressed as thought 2) tanks are leaking 3) Hanford officials hid leak evidence from advisory panel 4) the site poses safety hazards to the workers.

With that in mind and turning attention to Bechtel National Incorporated as one example, Hanford can be viewed as a poster child for everything that is wrong with predatory capitalism and influence peddling. In what now looks to be a betrayal of trust, billions of dollars have poured into flawed efforts at cleanup, over a number of years. Dr. Walt Tamosaitis, who is featured in the Vimeo clip, was fired from Bechtel for being a Hanford whistleblower and expressing (fifty) technical and safety concerns, “challenging one of their programs for which they were trying to get 5 million dollars in fee.”

Bechtel National is a Department of Energy (DOE) contractor that is “charged with the design, construction, and start up of the Waste Treatment Plant at the Site.” In an article titled Hanford Nuclear Waste Cleanup Plant May Be Too Dangerous, Scientific American explains:

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