Please consider this post a public service announcement, and excuse the fact that it’s just copy and paste. It’s long…and it’s awful. My purpose is to remind us all of the dangers that nuclear power, pipelines and oil drilling, especially off-shore pose to our planet’s health, and ours by extension. Chances are you’ve already read Edward Teller’s series on the Kulluk and Noble Discovery problematic recovery rigs operating in the Beaufort Sea. To say my heart’s not in this post after all the reading I’ve done for it over the past few days would be an understatement. I had no idea of the scope of radioactive (plutonium) waste that’s at Hanford. (All bolds are mine.) And a hat tip to Fdl’s AitchD for giving me the breaking news.
USA Today, some background from their investigative series:
Seven decades after scientists came here during World War II to create plutonium for the first atomic bomb, a new generation is struggling with an even more daunting task: cleaning up the radioactive mess.
The U.S. government is building a treatment plant to stabilize and contain 56 million gallons of waste left from a half-century of nuclear weapons production. The radioactive sludge is so dangerous that a few hours of exposure could be fatal. A major leak could contaminate water supplies serving millions across the Northwest. The cleanup is the most complex and costly environmental restoration ever attempted.
A USA TODAY investigation has found that the troubled, 10-year effort to build the treatment plant faces enormous problems just as it reaches what was supposed to be its final stage.
In exclusive interviews, several senior engineers cited design problems that could bring the plant’s operations to a halt before much of the waste is treated. Their reports have spurred new technical reviews and raised official concerns about the risk of a hydrogen explosion or uncontrolled nuclear reaction inside the plant. Either could damage critical equipment, shut the facility down or, worst case, allow radiation to escape.
The plant’s $12.3 billion price tag, already triple original estimates, is well short of what it will cost to address the problems and finish the project. And the plant’s start-up date, originally slated for last year and pushed back to its current target of 2019, is likely to slip further.
“We’re continuing with a failed design,” said Donald Alexander, a senior U.S. government scientist on the project.
Liz Mattson of Hanford Challenge set the context for the rousing discussion with a presentation about Hanford’s history – one shrouded in secrecy as the facility manufactured plutonium for atomic bombs. For over five decades, several hundred billion gallons of contaminants were released into the air, soil, and nearby Columbia River. While no longer producing plutonium, the facility is responsible for cleaning up the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive and hazardous waste that are sitting in 177 underground tanks … many of which are leaking and all of which are long past their designed lifespan.
Another important part of Hanford’s history is that of its whistleblowers. Since the 1980s, many employees have come forward about safety violations at Hanford, often resulting in outrageous forms of retaliation (one of the six stages whistleblowers often experience). Walt Tamosaitis worked as a Deputy Chief Process Engineer and Research & Technology Manager for the Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford, a government-owned, contractor-operated facility. Walt was terminated from the project by contractor Bechtel after raising concerns about issues that would impact the overall safety and operation of the plant. But he wasn’t fully fired – just sent to a windowless basement, literally to do nothing – a clear message to other workers who might wish to speak out.
The Hanford Challenge has other stories of whistle-blower abuse and retaliation.
A month ago a new containment tank was found to be leaking; the story of why the new leak wasn’t detected doesn’t add up to a layperson’s eyes.
But from Bloomberg News, Feb. 22:
Six tanks holding radioactive waste at the U.S. Energy Department’s Hanford site in Washington are leaking, more than reported earlier, Governor Jay Inslee said.
He learned of the new number, five more than identified as leaky a week ago, in a meeting yesterday with Energy Secretary Steven Chu in Washington, D.C., Inslee, 62, said in a statement.
“This is disturbing news for all Washingtonians,” the Democratic governor said. “One week ago, Secretary Chu told me there was one tank leaking. But he told me today that his department did not adequately analyze data it had that would have shown other tanks that are leaking.” [snip]
“This is the latest example of the U.S. Department of Energy’s failure to adequately resolve the significant threat posed by the nuclear waste at Hanford,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement. “Our office continues to explore all legal options.”
Chu’s revelation “certainly raises serious questions about the integrity of all 149 single-shell tanks with radioactive liquid and sludge at Hanford,” Inslee said. All six of the leaky vessels are the single-shell type, he said.
From Wikipedia on the ‘what the hell do you do with all this nuclear waste’ question:
The most significant challenge at Hanford is stabilizing the 53 million U.S. gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks. About a third of these tanks have leaked waste into the soil and groundwater. As of 2008[update], most of the liquid waste has been transferred to more secure double-shelled tanks; however, 2.8 million U.S. gallons (10,600 m3) of liquid waste, together with 27 million U.S. gallons of salt cake and sludge, remains in the single-shelled tanks. That waste was originally scheduled to be removed by 2018. The revised deadline is 2040. Nearby aquifers contain an estimated 270 billion U.S. gallons (1 billion m3) of contaminated groundwater as a result of the leaks. As of 2008[update], 1 million U.S. gallons (4,000 m3) of highly radioactive waste is traveling through the groundwater toward the Columbia River. This waste is expected to reach the river in 12 to 50 years if cleanup does not proceed on schedule. The site also includes 25 million cubic feet (710,000 m3) of solid radioactive waste.
Grand opening of the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility (ERDF)
Under the Tri-Party Agreement, lower-level hazardous wastes are buried in huge lined pits that will be sealed and monitored with sophisticated instruments for many years. Disposal of plutonium and other high-level wastes is a more difficult problem that continues to be a subject of intense debate. As an example, plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, and a decay of ten half-lives is required before a sample is considered to be safe. The Department of Energy is currently building a vitrification plant on the Hanford Site. Vitrification is a method designed to combine these dangerous wastes with glass to render them stable. Bechtel, the San Francisco based construction and engineering firm, has been hired to construct the vitrification plant, which is currently estimated to cost approximately $12 billion. Construction began in 2001. After some delays, the plant is now scheduled to be operational in 2019, with vitrification completed in 2047. It was originally scheduled to be operational by 2011, with vitrification completed by 2028.
The civil trial against British Petroleum, Transocean and Haliburton for damages caused by the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon began on Monday in New Orleans. From the Guardian just before the trial opened:
On Monday, barring last-minute reversals, teams of lawyers from BP, the rig’s owner, will face off with the US government’s finest legal minds, to determine the extent to which the British oil giant can be held accountable for those deaths and the wider damage done to the Gulf – the ninth-largest body of water in the world, one of the world’s most complex ecosystems and the US’s biggest supplier of seafood, which is home to 4,500 oil and gas platforms and structures.
From Reuters on the negligence issue:
The trial’s first phase focuses on how much each company is to blame and the degree of negligence. Luther Strange, Alabama’s attorney general, said he would seek to show all three companies had acted with “gross negligence and willful misconduct.”
“We will ask the court at the end of this trial to rule that all three – BP, Transocean, and Halliburton – are liable for punitive damages to the state of Alabama,” Strange said.
Simple negligence involves mistakes. Gross negligence involves reckless or willful disregard for human and environmental safety and is difficult to prove, experts say.
The Guardian again:
The risk for the government is also huge. Under the Clean Water Act, penalties plummet if the government fails to prove “gross negligence” – that the standard of BP’s Deepwater operation was so far below acceptable that a reasonable person would deem them to have been grossly negligent. Fines range from $1,100 for every barrel spilled through simple negligence to as much as $4,300 a barrel if gross negligence is found.
The trial is also meant to address claims from businesses that incurred losses that hadn’t been previously settled. Federal court Judge Carl Barbier expects the opening phase of the trial to last at least three months.
Opening day remark snippets from the LA Times:
BP was blinded by greed,” said Luther Strange, Alabama’s attorney general. “To BP, money mattered most. Greed devastated the gulf.”
In the days before the blowout the scene on the troubled rig — which some workers dubbed the “well from hell” — became increasingly chaotic, said Jim Roy, an attorney representing the plaintiffs’ steering committee. He promised that future testimony would illustrate “gross and extreme departure from the standards of good oilfield practice.”
The captain of the vessel, Roy said, had never been trained in operating the rig’s emergency systems. In fact, the Deepwater Horizon’s emergency systems — with their required audible alarms — were disconnected out of concerns that the claxons would wake the crew.
The Guardian has a timeline of the Macondo well blowout and devastation here. It comes as no surprise that the three corporations are busy pointing blame at each other.
Attorneys have told the Judge what evidence will be presented in this piece at nola.com; it’s a hard and disgusting read; when you consider the devastation it wrought, it’s tragic.
Underhill said the government’s case would demonstrate “a long series of missteps and reckless decisions made by BP” that, taken together, demonstrate willful misconduct. “The evidence will show that BP put profits above people, profits before safety and profits before the environment,” he said.
Attorney Jim Roy for the private plaintiffs speaking about Transocean’s auto-shutdown feature and blowout preventer:
Roy also contended that Transocean overrode several functions of its alarm and control system that was designed to automatically shut down drilling operations in the well in the event of an accident. The override required a crew member to manually activate the shutdown system. He said a Transocean chief electronics technician would testify that it was “done to avoid waking people up at night.”
He also took aim at the blowout preventer, saying it failed to prevent the rig from exploding, could not handle the maximum pressure and temperature conditions for the Macondo well, and therefore should not have been used. He also said Transocean did not conduct enough maintenance on the drilling rig.
“When the rig does receive maintenance time, that time is generally taken up by repairing the equipment that is broken,” Roy said, adding that Transocean was “making over half a million dollars a day instead of bringing the vessel into a shipyard for repairs.”
“Transocean’s safety culture was broken, and the evidence will show that management’s willful refusal to fix it led directly to the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” he said.
In oil pipeline news from Rainforest Action Network:
Yesterday in Tyler County, TX, a pipeline operated by Sunoco Logistics sprung a leak and spilled 20,000 gallons (or 550 barrels) of oil into local East Texas waterways. Deep East Texas is known for its creeks and lakes, freshwater eco-systems and aquifers that provide water to the eastern part of the state, including mega-cities Dallas and Houston. But oil companies treat these forests and waterways as collateral damage.
Quality control requires that oil companies use “leak detection systems.” Those systems reported nothing until local residents began to report that oil was in the water. (Ummm… so, how do you not detect a 20,000 gallons oil leak?)
Sunoco’s spill is merely a prologue for leaks and spills that might come once the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline is completed.
The site of the spill is not far from a Tar Sands Blockade (TSB) action in Diboll, TX in January. It’s only a few hour away from TSB’s tree blockade that prevented construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline for 85 days.
I’d run into this video by chance; Falling on Purpose was slated to be at Ocober2011 in DeeCee.; those pesky young OWS folks beat em to it, and headed to Zucotti Park.