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Nuclear Waste Program

Frequently Asked Questions: Leaking underground tanks at Hanford

Ecology knows the public and the news media want and deserve answers about leaking tanks at Hanford, so we have created this page to answer some of the most common questions. Please submit other questions you would like to see answered by emailing hanford@ecy.wa.gov or calling 1-800-321-2008.

Questions and Answers:

Please click a question from the list to view the answer.

  1. Updated! - 11/06/2013 How many tanks are leaking and when did they start?
  2. What is the threat to public health?
  3. What are the options for dealing with leaking tanks?
  4. How are the tanks monitored?
  5. Wasn't all the liquid pumped out of the SSTs years ago?
    If so, why are these tanks leaking again?
  6. What has been done to slow tank leaks?
  7. What has been done to keep water from intruding into the tanks
    and prevent contaminants from moving toward groundwater?
  8. How hard is it to get the waste out of tanks? 
  9. If the waste is pumped out of the tanks, where will it go? Don't you need additional storage space? If so, how much time and money is it going to take to build new tanks?
  10. Updated! - 11/06/2013 Is there any good news about Hanford tanks?
  11. Why didn't Ecology know about the leaks sooner?
  12. Will Ecology take enforcement actions if USDOE does not act soon?

Updated! - 11/06/2013 1) How many tanks are leaking and when did they start?

Single-shell tanks B-203 and B-204 under construction. (Click image to enlarge.)

Single-shell tanks T-111, T-203, and T-204 under construction. (Click image to enlarge.)

Between October 2012 and February 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) reported that 7 of the 177 underground storage tanks at Hanford are leaking.

The Washington State Department of Ecology only knows when USDOE reported these leaks, not when the leaks actually started. (Note that 67 tanks leaked at least one million gallons in the past. See Question 5: Wasn't all the liquid pumped out of the SSTs years ago? If so, why are these tanks leaking again? for more information.)

Of the 6 single-shell tanks that were thought to be actively leaking, USDOE now (November 6, 2013) says an analysis of the data indicates that only one of those tanks (T-111) is leaking. USDOE’s reports indicate that evaporation is the likely cause of the decreasing waste levels in the other 5 tanks. 

Ecology reviewed drafts of these reports, and we agree with the findings for 4 of the 6 tanks that evaporation is the likely explanation for declining waste levels. On the other tanks, we believe further analysis is necessary to determine why waste levels are falling.

Tanks in Question

  • Double-shell tank (DST) AY-102, first reported 10/18/12. Waste is leaking into the space between the waste tank, or the inner shell of the double-shell tank, and the secondary containment shell. This space, called the annulus, was designed to contain leaks.
  • Single-shell tanks (SSTs) reported by then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (replaced by Ernest Moniz) to Washington Governor Jay Inslee:
    • B-203, reported 2/22/13
    • B-204, reported 2/22/13
    • T-111, reported 2/15/13
    • T-203, reported 2/22/13
    • T-204, reported 2/22/13
    • TY-105, reported 2/22/13

2) What is the threat to public health?

No immediate or near-term health risks are associated with Hanford’s tank leaks.

  • The tanks are underground, five to eight miles from the Columbia River, in an isolated area far from any homes or farms. 
  • There is no route for the leaked waste to travel from Hanford to agricultural areas, so there is no risk of food crop contamination.
  • Hanford’s groundwater is about 200 to 300 feet below the tanks, so the new leaks will take decades to reach it.
  • The groundwater pump-and-treat facilities in the center of Hanford are keeping the majority of pre-existing groundwater contamination from moving toward the Columbia River.  

However, the fact that there is no immediate threat to health does not minimize the state's concerns, because any leaks add to future groundwater problems. These leaks underscore the importance of retrieving and treating tank waste as quickly as possible to mitigate the chance of further releases to the environment.


3) What are the options for dealing with leaking tanks?

The single-shell tanks (SSTs) are all unfit for use and decades past their design life. It would be impossible to repair and upgrade the SSTs to meet current regulatory standards. Some options for addressing leaks include:

  • Increasing monitoring and sampling.

  • Developing new retrieval technologies.

  • Constructing surface barriers over SST farms. In 2008, an interim barrier was constructed over part of T Tank Farm, where three of the leaking SSTs are located, to protect against precipitation entering tanks and to keep that precipitation from pushing contaminants closer to the groundwater. Construction of additional barriers is a possible solution to slow the spread of leaked tank waste.

  • Building new tanks. We had assumed that the double-shell tanks (DSTs) were still sound and could accept waste from SSTs. However, the leak from the inner shell of AY-102 has led us to re-evaluate that assumption. To move the waste out of that DST and the SSTs, USDOE may have to build new DSTs. Washington, Oregon, and the Hanford Advisory Board have urged USDOE to start the process to build new DSTs at Hanford. However, obtaining funding and designing and constructing new tanks would likely take at least 10 years.

  • Removing liquid waste from DST AY-102 with a portable evaporator.

  • Disposing some of the waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Because the Waste Treatment Plant designed to treat Hanford’s tank waste will not start up for at least six more years, USDOE is exploring other options to treat and dispose of this waste. It may be possible to classify the waste in five of the six leaking SSTs as transuranic waste (meaning literally “after uranium,” this waste contains alpha-particle-emitting radioactive isotopes with atomic numbers higher than 92, uranium's atomic number). If this was done, then the waste would be retrieved from the tanks, dried, packaged, and shipped to WIPP for disposal. But this process would, optimistically, take at least two to five years.


4) How are the tanks monitored?

Monitoring of the tank waste is difficult in part due to the high radiation and harsh chemical environment inside most tanks.  Access to the insides of the tanks is limited.  

All of the tanks have monitoring instruments inside them. This is a requirement of the Tri-Party Agreement. However, analyzing the monitoring data is a complex process, and it can be difficult to detect very small changes in waste levels in tanks that do not have much liquid or solid waste.  

The existing in-tank monitoring equipment is imperfect, but no better systems have been identified. U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) can currently only monitor the surface level at one location in each tank. Most tanks have annual monitoring requirements. If they have an Enraf® gauge, they are monitored continuously. One data point is gathered each day.

For tanks with liquid observation wells, a neutron probe is used quarterly to gather data. It was a look at long term trends of that data something USDOE had never done before — that led to the conclusion there must be new leaks.

External tank monitoring can be used to detect releases to the environment but is much more expensive to implement and also has limitations on its usefulness. It is being done, but Ecology is looking for ways to improve the monitoring process. (See Single-Shell Tank System Leak Detection and Monitoring Functions and Requirements, RPP-9937, Rev. 3, for more information.)


5) Wasn't all the liquid pumped out of the SSTs years ago? If so, why are these tanks leaking again?

Hanford’s single-shell tanks were interim stabilized between 1978 and 2010. Ecology sued the  U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) to finish interim stabilization in 1999 through a Consent Decree. The interim stabilization process removed as much pumpable, or free, liquid as was “practicable.”  Practicable means pumping was continued until the rate was very low — less than 0.05 gallons per minute.  

Solid waste, called saltcake, that remains after liquid waste is pumped out. (Click to enlarge.)

However, liquids drain very slowly through the saltcake and sludge, and there was only one pumping location per tank.  Over time, additional liquids can drain to the pumping location, so liquids still in the tanks can only be pumped after they migrate to the pumping location.  

Tanks are buried under 7 to 10 feet of soil to shield workers from radiation. This safeguard also limits access to the waste in the tanks. The pipes extending from the ground, called risers, are the only entry port to remove waste for safer storage and treatment unless modifications are made.

Some tanks met interim stabilization requirements because they didn’t have that much waste in the first place. Six tanks were administratively interim stabilized after pumping equipment failed and was too expensive to replace. 

In addition, precipitation has entered some tanks and increased the liquid volume, a process known as intrusion.

After reviewing monitoring data, USDOE now knows that some of the tanks have continued to show decreases in waste levels. Ecology would like USDOE to use better monitoring equipment and to prove that existing equipment is in good working condition.


6) What has been done to slow tank leaks?

All free liquids were pumped from the single-shell tanks to newer double-shell tanks from the 1970s to the 1990s, leaving solid saltcake and slurry (mixture of liquid and solid waste) in the tanks. However, liquids drain very slowly through the saltcake and sludge, and there is only one pumping location per tank.  Over time, additional liquids drain to the pumping location, so liquids still in the tanks can only be pumped after they move to the pumping location.


7) What has been done to keep water from intruding into the tanks and prevent contaminants from moving toward groundwater?

Most raw water pipelines to the single-shell tank (SST) farms were cut and capped between 2001 and 2002. Leaky water distribution lines next to tank farms were also pressure tested. If these lines were not needed or failed the test, they were either remediated or removed from service to further limit the amount of water moving through the soil, a driving force in contaminant migration.

Water intrusion into SSTs has been reduced, but monitoring data continues to indicate intrusion in some tanks. The sources of intrusion are being investigated and stopped where possible. Engineering controls were installed to prevent rain or snowmelt from forming puddles or ponds over, or in the vicinity of, the tanks. Surface covers were installed over some tank farms, and berms were built on the ground surface to direct water away from the tank farms.


8) How hard is it to get the waste out of tanks?

Cutaway diagram showing the inside of a single-shell tank and its external access points.(Click to enlarge.) Removing waste from Hanford's tanks is difficult for many reasons:

  • Access to the tank waste is very limited.  The tops of the tanks are 7 to 10 feet underground, and openings into the tanks are limited. Double-shell tanks (DSTs) have more access points than single-shell tanks (SSTs). Regardless, all work is done remotely using video cameras and robotic equipment.

  • The waste is usually very radioactive and contains many chemicals, creating an environment that limits the types of equipment that can be used. For instance, electronic equipment can be burned out by radiation.

  • Workers must rely on only one or two cameras in each tank to view waste and retrieval equipment.

  • The waste in the tanks is not homogeneous and can have varied properties at different locations in the tank. The solid waste is generally broken up using high pressure spray (existing liquid waste is constantly recirculated so more waste isn't created). The liquid is also used to transport waste from SSTs to DSTs.

  • Retrieval technologies continue to evolve, but retrieval rates are still limited.

  • Waste can only be moved to a tank with the appropriate space and chemistry.

Cutaway diagram showing the inside of a double-shell tank and its external access points. (Click to enlarge.)In addition to the above challenges, pumps and other equipment break, the weather can become too hot for workers to be safe in protective gear or too cold for equipment to work properly. When equipment operates smoothly and weather conditions are safe for workers, tank retrieval work continues around the clock.


9) If the waste is pumped out of the tanks, where will it go? Don't you need additional storage space? If so, how much time and money is it going to take to build new tanks?

A shortage of space in Hanford’s double-shell tanks is a concern, especially because one of them is leaking. Ecology is not convinced that current storage is adequate to meet legal and regulatory requirements for tank retrievals and Waste Treatment Plant operations.  

The state and the federal governments must have a thorough and candid discussion about the need for additional storage tanks. The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) estimates that it could take a minimum of 7 to 10 years and cost around $100 million per tank to build new tanks. But we can’t wait that long. We will be working with USDOE to consider options for accelerating that process.


Updated! - 11/06/2013 10) Is there any good news about Hanford tanks?

The news that at least 4 single-shell tanks appear not to be actively leaking is encouraging, but it does not mitigate the need to remain vigilant in protecting future public health and our environment from Hanford waste. The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) has a responsibility to prevent waste from leaking into the environment, and to promptly address any tanks that are found to be leaking. We know that many of these single-shell tanks have leaked in the past and that future leaks are highly likely if the federal government does not act to get this waste retrieved and treated in a timely manner.

In addition, active retrieval is ongoing, and a variety of technologies are being used in C Tank Farm, also known as Waste Management Area C (WMAC).  The 2010 Consent Decree between Washington State and USDOE sets September 2014 as the deadline to complete waste retrieval from all 16 C Farm tanks, but USDOE has said that deadline is in jeopardy.


11) Why didn't Ecology know about the leaks sooner?

All of the tanks have monitoring instruments inside them. This is a requirement of the Tri-Party Agreement. However, the analysis of the monitoring data is a complex process, and it can be difficult to detect very small changes in waste levels because the SSTs do not have much liquid.

In double-shell Tank AY-102, the leak is too small to observe noticeable changes in liquid level.  Ecology will be working with the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) to see if there are better leak detection methods that can track small changes.

It is USDOE’s responsibility to analyze tank monitoring data and then deliver the raw data and their findings to Ecology. Ecology then reviews their findings and independently analyzes the data.  Ecology will be working with USDOE and its contractors to ensure that their data evaluation procedures are updated for more accurate analysis to reflect current conditions.

In this case, because of the serious nature of decreasing and increasing tank levels, we are expediting the process by working jointly with USDOE to review their analyses.


12) Will Ecology take enforcement actions if USDOE does not act soon?

The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) is acting by developing a path forward. Of course, Ecology always has the option to take enforcement actions and uses them when necessary.


For more information about leaking underground storage tanks at Hanford, please contact Ecology at hanford@ecy.wa.gov or 800-321-2008.

ACRONYM GUIDE 

DST: Double-shell tank

SST: Single-shell tank

USDOE: United States Department of Energy (Hanford Site owner)

NEWS

Board urges caution in removing waste from Hanford tank, Tri-City Herald (11/11/13)

DOE says just 1, not 6, Hanford single-shell tanks leaking, Tri-City Herald (11/6/13)

Feds ignore Hanford tank advice for decades, KING 5 (9/19/13)

New Hanford report may discount suspected leakers/a>, KING 5 (9/18/13)

Waste likely not from Hanford tank, report says, Tri-City Herald (9/12/13)

No exterior leak from Hanford tank, according to Department of Energy, NWPR (7/22/13)

Review: Hanford tank leak could have been found sooner, Tri-City Herald (7/20/13)

DOE: Tests inconclusive on Hanford tank leak, Tri-City Herald (7/19/13)

Hanford tank may be leaking waste into soil, Tri-City Herald (6/21/13)

Hanford double-wall tank may be leaking ‘screaming hot’ N-waste, The Seattle Times (6/21/13)

Many questions, few answers about new Hanford leak, KING 5 (6/21/13)

Worst Hanford tank may be leaking into soil, KING 5 (6/21/13)

New photos show growing leak in Hanford tank, KING 5 (6/21/13)

Report says it could take six years to empty leaking Hanford tank, NWPR (6/17/13)

Feds: Hanford leaking tank won't be pumped until 2019, KING 5 (6/13/13)

Hanford contractor wasted millions on leaking tank, KING 5 (6/13/13)

Leak in Hanford double-shell tank getting worse, KING 5 (6/13/13)

State ready to take action over leaking Hanford nuclear waste tank, KING 5 (6/3/13)

Plan for leaking Hanford tank promised by June 14, KING 5 (5/23/13)

Hanford officials hid leak evidence from advisory panel, KING 5 (5/21/13)

No plan in place when leak alarm sounded at Hanford, KING 5 (5/10/13)

Hanford worker's struggle to 'do the right thing', KING 5 (4/25/13)

KING 5 story on Hanford prompts action by Inslee, feds, KING 5 (4/25/13)

Contractor discounted Hanford leak evidence for a year, KING 5 (4/22/13)

Tank AY-102 leak timeline: 12 months between first signs and public announcement, KING 5 (4/22/13)

Leaking Hanford tanks topic at Manhattan Project park hearing, Tri-City Herald (4/12/13)

Video of Hanford's oldest double-shell tank shows no [new] leaks, Tri-City Herald (4/9/13)

Hanford waste plan under debate in New Mexico, OPB (4/4/13)

What makes Hanford's 'TRU' tank waste different from the rest? NWPR (4/4/13)

Hanford Watchdogs: Sending tank waste to NM won't work, OPB (3/27/13)

Hanford cleanup slows while tanks leak, treatment plant stalls, NWPR (3/25/13)

Washington nuclear site leaks alarm environmentalists, Al Jazeera English (3/17/13)

Gov. Inslee tours Hanford site Gov. Inslee tours Hanford site, Tri-City Herald (3/6/13)

Budget cuts threaten work at leaking Hanford nuke tanks, KING 5 (3/5/13)

Inslee says tank leaks at Hanford worrisome, Tri-City Herald (2/28/13)

Ecology Director Bellon talks about leaky tanks on "The Impact," TVW (2/27/13)

Inslee says Hanford leaks could be 1,000 gal/year, AP (2/27/13)

Wyden seeks Hanford tank leak timeline, Tri-City Herald (2/26/13)

Inslee demands feds cleanup nuclear waste from leaking Hanford tanks, KING 5 (2/26/13)

Hanford tanks could be leaking three gallons per day, NWPR (2/25/13)

Waste from leaking single-shell tank at Hanford could be sent to New Mexico, Tri-City Herald (2/22/13)

Governor Inslee: Six Hanford tanks are leaking, Tri-City Herald (2/22/13)

Single-shell tank at Hanford found to be leaking waste, Tri-City Herald (2/16/13)

Governor Jay Inslee wants more tanks at Hanford, Tri-City Herald (2/1/13)

Oregon governor wants DOE to add more tanks for Hanford waste, Tri-City Herald (1/30/13)

Mystery of rising levels in Hanford tanks partially solved, Tri-City Herald (1/24/13)

No leak found in Hanford's 2nd oldest radioactive waste tank, Tri-City Herald (1/8/13)

Hanford managers mull solutions for leaky tanks, NPR (11/14/12)

Preparing for the worst; Hanford officials deal with leaking tank, NPR (11/14/12)

Inner-shell leak on Hanford tank may be up to 520 gallons, Tri-City Herald (11/14/12)

DOE officials confirm tank leaking radioactive waste, Tri-City Herald (10/23/12)

Hanford managers confirm slow leak in radioactive waste tank, NPR (10/22/12)

DOE confirms leak inside Hanford waste tank, KING 5 News (10/22/12)

Material between Hanford tank walls apparently radioactive waste--Tri-City Herald (10/12/12)

Apparent leak could trigger emergency response at Hanford nuclear Facility, KING 5 News (10/12/12)

DOE finds more evidence of possible leak in Hanford double-shell tank, Tri-City Herald (9/1/12)

Hanford double-shell tank may have interior leak, Tri-City Herald (8/18/12)

AY-102 PUMPING PLAN

RPP-PLAN-55220, Rev. A

AY-102 FIELD REPORTS

PRESENTATIONS

Hanford: Tanks in Trouble, University of Washington public meeting | photos (5/23/13)

House of Representatives Environment Committee (3/14/13)

Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee (2/27/13)

Tank AY-102 Status, USDOE (8/20/12)

MORE INFO ONLINE

NEW! - 11/06/2013 Single-Shell Tank Evaluations, USDOE Hanford website (external link)

Ecology's Tank Waste Storage, Operations, and Closure Project

Washington regulations for tank systems: WAC 173-303-640(7)

Double-Shell Tank Emergency Pumping Guide in Ecology's Hanford Dangerous Waste Permit

Tank Farms, USDOE Hanford website (external link)