Hanford’s Radioactive Waste Storage Tank AY-102 [UPDATED]

by Crane-Station with note: This was also posted on Firedoglake, on Wednesday, 6/19/2013

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 above 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:

Taxpayers are footing the bill for the defendants’ legal costs and also for the settlements because of a World War II agreement to indemnify Hanford’s nuclear weapons contractors, including General Electric and DuPont.

Tanks AY-101 and AY-102 under construction
Tanks AY-101 and AY-102 under construction at Hanford by RiverProtection on Flickr

UPDATE: On Thursday, the day after Dr. Moniz visited Hanford, workers performed a routine check to the leak detection pit. They have apparently discovered indication that AY-102 is now leaking to the soil. They also took photos of the annulus, the hollow space between the two walls, and found additional material beyond the photos I have posted here, in this post.

On Friday, a whistleblower reported this to CBS, and CBS did a report last night. The link to the CBS report is in my tweet:

Rachel ‏@CraneStation 9h
Possible radioactive leak into soil at Hanford http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57590463/possible-radioactive-leak-into-soil-at-hanford/?tag=socsh … via @CBSNews
CBS report on new AY-102 tank leak, to the soil.


Rendering of Hanford's Double-Shell Tanks
Rendering of Hanford Double Shell Tank by RiverProtection on flickr

White material found in tank AY-102
White material found in tank AY-102 by RiverProtection on flickr

Overview of Region Viewed From Riser, August 29, 2012
Overview of region by RiverProtection on flickr

end note to clarify: Some folks mistake Hanford for a decomissioned nuclear power plant, but this is not true. Hanford was part of the Manhattan Project, and its reactors produced material for atomic weapons. Plutonium does not really occur in nature for mining purposes. It is reactor made. The byproducts are incredibly nasty.

16 Responses to Hanford’s Radioactive Waste Storage Tank AY-102 [UPDATED]

  1. fauxmccoy says:

    thanks crane — for the life of me i will never understand the apparent importance of purposefully creating such toxic material when no known disposal method has been developed. how long have we been ‘working’ on disposal issues? have we seen any progress in 60 years? was it worth it? gaaaaah!

    my deepest sympathies to all who live in the general vicinity – from the lowly fruitfly to hapless humans.

    • ay2z says:

      fauxy, it’s simply industry not needing to clean up. Not about bad economy, the company is doing pretty well on war contracts for rebuilding Iraq, it needs to have your government hold it’s feet to the fire and use some of it’s mega profits, on Hanford, the most toxic site in North America.

      The two videos I posted, watch the MSNBC one first, then the scientist who alludes to her own fear that she had to come forward and be protected from those in the company who have an interest in keeping her quiet.

      They need to keep the tanks stirred in order to keep things from blowing up or corroding/erroding through the metal and concrete. Stirring seems to be a problem.

      Global disaster, not regional. Plutonium et al would have a quick ride into the Pacific Ocean.

  2. ay2z says:


    My comment is in moderation, didn’t realize there were hyper links in some of the quoted text

    The MSNBC report includes several interviews, and they put it best, it’s not a nuclear power plant. Completely different.

    Hanford made the radioactive materials for weapons, basically a chemical plant. The safety is separated from the owner of nuclear power sites and regulating bodies. Not so with plants that produce weapons grade nuclear products, like Hanford. The regulators are not separated, the industry regulates itself.

  3. ay2z says:

    Video report from MSNBC, 2011

    “Rachel Maddow: Whistleblower Paying Price for Voicing Nuke Concerns.”


  4. ay2z says:

    Thanks for the report, Crane.

  5. ay2z says:

    OUr region is in the drift shadow of Hanford. It reaches a long way north.

    Not fun to think about. What was the movie made of the young woman who worked at Hanford and was killed, some speculated to keep her quiet about conditions at Hanford? Paula… or… will have to look that up.

    • ay2z says:

      ‘Downwinders’ Wiki article.

      Plutonium was also separated and purified for use in nuclear weapons, which resulted in the release of radioactive material into the air. Air polluted by material from the Hanford site traveled throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and even into Canada.

      Further contamination filtered into the food chain via contaminated fields where milk cows grazed; hazardous fallout was ingested by communities who consumed the radioactive food and drank the milk.

      Another source of contaminated food came from Columbia River fish; their impact was disproportionately felt by Native American communities who depended on the river for their customary diets.

      The estimate of those exposed to radioactive contamination due to living downwind of Hanford or ingesting food or water that flowed downstream is as high as 2 million.

  6. Xena says:

    @Crane-Station, excellent, in-depth article.

  7. Two sides to a story says:

    Thank you.

    Humans are SO uniquely unable to deal with all the ramifications of nuclear power over time, especially in a failing economy.

    • ay2z says:

      But Hanford was not about nuclear power, it was about producing plutonium for bombs, the Manhattan Project and on though the arms race.

      Found this article published in High Country News, 1997. gives an overview of the history and problems of Hanford.

      The author is “Karen Dorn Steele has covered Hanford for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, for 12 years.”

      There is a list of resources at the bottom, for anyone wishing to do something, but these are of course, from 1997.

      Thank goodness for whistleblower protections, the only way to be safe is to go public it seems.

      Anyone remember who the woman was who was an early whistleblower who feared for her life? Was she Paulette?

      An excerpt from this article.


      “Nobody got brownie points for caring about nuclear waste,” Wilson said. “The AEC neglected the problem.”

      From World War II to the mid-1980s, Hanford and 16 other weapons sites were shielded by national security rules and did not have to follow the environmental laws that applied to other government agencies and to private business.

      The government’s stance “was an attitude of neglect bordering on contempt for environmental protection,” charged Sen. John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat who has led the recent fight in Congress to reform the DOE.

      “What they said, in effect, is “we’re going to build bombs and the environment be damned,” “””Glenn said.

      As the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, Hanford went on a new tank-building spree. The tanks stored toxic liquid wastes left over from a chemical process that separates plutonium and uranium for nuclear bombs. In gray, windowless cement buildings so large they were nicknamed “Queen Marys,” workers oversaw the complex process.

      For every kilogram of finished plutonium, reprocessing spewed out more than 340 gallons of liquid, high-level, radioactive wastes mixed with hazardous chemicals, over 55,000 gallons of low to intermediate radioactive wastes and 2.5 million gallons of cooling waters.

      This liquid garbage contains a poisonous brew of chemicals, plus cesium, strontium and remnants of plutonium, uranium and other heavy metals, some of which will remain radioactive for millions of years.

      Reprocessing also generated nearly 350 billion gallons of mildly contaminated wastewater which was discharged directly to the ground between 1945 and 1991, according to a DOE estimate. That practice, now discontinued, raised Hanford’s water table by as much as 75 feet in some places.

      Hanford’s nuclear garbage accumulated quickly. The first tanks built to store the 1 million gallons of highly radioactive waste produced each year during the Cold War were single-wall. The oldest 149 tanks, built from 1943-1964, are the biggest hazard. Later, 28 double-wall tanks were added, for a total of 177.


      You can …

      * Call the U.S. Department of Energy, Richland, Wash., DOE Richland Operations Office, 509/372-2731;

      * Obtain an executive summary of the Vadose Zone Contamination Issue Expert Panel Report on the Internet at http://www.gov/docs/rl-97-49/summary.htm;

      * Obtain the environmental impact statement for the Tank Waste Remediation Program on the Internet at http://www.hanford.gov/eis/twrseis.htm;

      * Call the Government Accountability Project’s Seattle office, which represents Hanford whistleblowers, at 206/292-2850. GAP’s Internet address is http://www.whistleblower.org/gap;

      * Call the Washington Department of Ecology’s Hanford cleanup program, Kennewick, Wash., 509/735-7581.

  8. Nef05 says:

    Wow, this is really deep, C-S. I can’t believe I’ve never heard about this. Thank you so much for gathering so much info on this and posting it. There’s so much to digest. I’ll have to read it again, and do some West-like processing. While I do, I have a tangential question (don’t I always 🙂 )

    Do you have any idea if this the same type of material being processed/stored in the new TX nuclear waste dump that the TX commission redrew the lines of the Ogallala Aquifer for, so they could approve the site (which they did) that allowed them to put a nuclear waste dump on top of an aquifer that is a main supplier of fresh water to at least 5 plains states? I kind of just assume that it is, at least similar, but I don’t know if I’m thinking apples and oranges or Red Delicious apples and Golden Delicious apples.

    Of course we know that TX has such a great reputation for their regulation of their for profit industries… 😦

    The site, he said, is close to the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of drinking water, and there are concerns that radioactive materials could seep into it…. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted the company initial licenses in 2007 after conducting geological studies of the area. Three staff members at the commission resigned in protest after the licenses were granted, saying they did not believe the area had been proved safe for waste disposal.


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