Cynthia Kelly: It is Wednesday, September 12, 2018. I’m Cindy Kelly, and I have with me Tom Carpenter. I would first like him to tell us his full name, and spell it.
Tom Carpenter: Okay. It’s Thomas Everett Carpenter, and it’s T-H-O-M-A-S and then Carpenter, C-A-R-P-E-N-T-E-R.
Kelly: So if you can tell us where and when you were born, and how you came to be so involved in Hanford issues?
Carpenter: I was born in 1957 in Texas. My family moved to Ohio in ’61. I grew up there in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. I ended up in college learning about pesticides and food safety and read Silent Spring. I got involved in a Cincinnati food co-op, which was a working co-op, so you actually had to put time in and not just pay money. You had to be a cashier or stock the shelves or whatever. Me being lazier than most people, I said, “I think I’ll be the education coordinator, and put on speakers once a month.”
I took on that job and someone wanted to come and talk about nuclear issues. In 1978, this guy came to talk about nuclear weapons and nuclear power and the connection between them. I didn’t know anything about it. He ended up talking about this demonstration that was happening at Rocky Flats in 1978 with Daniel Ellsberg and Allen Ginsberg, etc. I decided to go because I was interested in the information. I went and attended this demonstration at Rocky Flats. They all got arrested; I didn’t get arrested, because I was just too new to it and I was pretty young. I was 20 years old.
One thing that they did was, the demonstration organizers held a workshop in downtown Denver, and got people to go to it and say, “Go home and organize, and here’s how you write a press release, and here’s how you start a group, and here’s how you can charter an organization.”
I decided to do that. I went back to Cincinnati and found an ally, a woman named Polly Brokaw, who is a Quaker. I wasn’t, but she was an activist and had this long history in Civil Rights activism. She taught me a lot. She just said, “Yeah, let’s do this.” We quickly came up with the name of an organization, which was Cincinnati Alliance for Responsible Energy.
She said, “We’re just going to announce an action. We’re not going to worry about meetings and titles and all that; we’re just going to do something because people gravitate toward action.”
I said, “Okay, that sounds good to me.”
We did that, and 30 people came to our first announced meeting at the college campus. It grew from there. We did have an action, like two months later at the local nuclear power plant, the Zimmer Nuclear Power Plant. In ’79, Three Mile Island happened. Our meetings went from 35 to 50 people showing up to—I think we had 900 people at our next meeting after Three Mile Island. Things really took off.
One thing I learned in that fight to stop that nuclear plant from opening near Cincinnati was that workers at these facilities: A) they care, and B) their eyes are open and many of them are avid believers and followers of nuclear safety protocols, and they’re willing to work with anyone who will listen. We started getting calls from workers at the Zimmer Plant who had a lot of information.
One of them in particular had this incredible treasure trove of great documents and great stories.
As soon as we looked at what he had, I put them in the back of my – actually, I have to say this right—I put them in my girlfriend’s Volkswagen Beetle, and we drove to Washington, DC.
He was paranoid, so he had a fully loaded gun in his lap the whole way, because he had heard about Karen Silkwood, and didn’t know if we’d be run off the road. He did have quite a bit of information, but I don’t know that was justified.
We made the rounds to all these organizations trying to find some help, because we didn’t want to blow it. We knew that if we just made this information that he had public without a strategy that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would simply deny it, and that would be the end of that story.
We did end up at the doorstep of an organization called Government Accountability Project. They interviewed me; they interviewed him for several days with all the documents, and made this deal with me. They said, “We’ll work on his case, but we want to partner with you because we can’t do this without a local presence.”
I kind of transformed the organization from an anti-nuclear organization to one that was focused on the particular problems with nuclear safety design and construction at the Zimmer Nuclear Power Plant. We kind of transcended the usual arguments about nuclear, and really focused straight to, “What’s wrong with this plant, and what is wrong with the design problems, and how the laws apply.” Because people were really tuned in to nuclear safety as a result of Three Mile Island.
That turned out to be the winning strategy in terms of, more workers came forward. We had lawyers involved now. Eventually, the overwhelming evidence was that the plant was poorly built and the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory. Commission] could not justify giving it a license. It never opened as a nuclear plant. That was because of the 70+ workers that ended up coming to us, many of them quality assurance inspectors and welders and engineers and whatnot, who had inside information about defects in the construction of the plant, or in the design.
The upshot of that was I decided to go to law school and join this organization, Government Accountability Project, and became their nuclear oversight campaign manager.
We started working on helping workers and whistleblowers at nuclear sites all over the country; Diablo Canyon and Rocky Flats, both commercial and DOE. But DOE sites, Department of Energy sites, really became a focus for me, even in Cincinnati because of an article in the paper.
Here I am, working assiduously on this commercial nuclear facility called Zimmer. My whole days are just eaten up by research and talks and meetings. Here’s this article saying, “Nuclear waste site to be expanded in Cincinnati.”
I go, “What nuclear waste site in Cincinnati?” It was the Fernald site. This was in 1979. I couldn’t find out anything about it. I went to the library, there’s nothing in the library about Fernald. “What is it? Where is it? How is it?”
I drove out there and circled this plant, not knowing it was even a nuclear site because even though there was barbed wire around it, it had cows grazing on the facility. The sign said, “Feed materials production center,” and it had a checkerboard tower, which resembled Ralston Purina logo. Ralston Purina is headquartered in Cincinnati, so you’re used to seeing their logo all over the place. Subconsciously, I thought it was a cow feed place. At one point, I finally saw this little yellow sign on the fence. I got closer to it and it said, “US Government property.” I went, “Ah, this is it.”
I found the creek, because I knew everything goes downhill and the creeks are the lowest point. I was taking a sample of water from the creek to get it tested for radioactivity, and I was confronted by security guards from the Fernald site. I wasn’t on their property, so they couldn’t do anything to me. I had that water tested, and it was filled with uranium, because the site was very dirty. That kind of kicked me off in that direction, looking at the Fernald site, which nobody in Cincinnati knew anything about.
In 1979, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request against Fernald. They didn’t know how to handle it; they’d never had one of those before. After a couple of months, I got these boxes. I opened the boxes, and it was literally carbon copies. In the old days when they had typewriters, they had onionskin paper and they put a piece of carbon between the pages and made copies that way. Well, that’s what they did. They had these copies in their file, and they just sent me those copies.
Stuff that they didn’t want me to know, because it was an ongoing secret facility, they just kind of took a magic marker to. All I had to do was hold the paper up and read through the paper to see what it really said. They were not happy with me, when we published this data that Fernald had released 8 million pounds of uranium dust to Cincinnati’s air and water, that the cows on the site were likely contaminated, that the groundwater was polluted.
Suddenly, Cincinnati woke up to, “Oh, there’s this nuclear facility just east of the town.” It’s actually west of Cincinnati, near Indiana, not that far away. Things just really kind of took off from there for me and Department of Energy facility.
In my role at the Government Accountability Project—I was actually just a law student when I joined them full time—this nuclear safety auditor from Fernald contacted me and his disclosure, his main disclosure, was that workers at the Fernald site were processing uranium, which is pretty low-grade radiation risk. But this uranium was from Hanford, it was contaminated with plutonium, which is a high-grade radiation risk. If you exceed five parts per million in the materials that you’re working with of plutonium—if it’s above five—then you’re supposed to do health monitoring for workers and do bio-assays, and make sure that they are not inhaling plutonium particles that could threaten their health.
They were working with materials at 7,500 parts per million. They weren’t telling the workers, they weren’t telling the union. They knew it. This auditor found this out, so we arranged for a Congressional hearing. This news program called “20/20” decided to do the first major TV exposé of the nuclear weapons complex. They called it the “Bomb Factories.” My client was on there—Dan Arthur was his name. I was on there, interviewed, and some people from Hanford.
My first introduction to the Hanford site was some of these whistleblowers in the Hanford site calling me because they saw me on TV on this show. They said, “We saw you, and you’re a lawyer.”
I said, “I’m just a law student. I’m under the supervision of a lawyer.” I became a lawyer the next year, and started going out to the Hanford site. That was in 1985.
In 1992, I was going out to Hanford in Washington state so much – by the way, I’m in Washington, DC this whole time – that we opened up a branch office in Seattle in 1992. I led that office. We focused on Hanford but also the rest of the country, and went to Russia six or seven times to look at their nuclear facilities as well and just got an eyeful about that, and a lot of stories from that.
In 2007, spun off that organization, that branch office, to become a group called Hanford Challenge. I founded this group that just focuses on Hanford. I didn’t look at the other sites, and wasn’t flying all over the place trying to handle all the issues that—this is too much. In 2007, we started Hanford Challenge, and I’ve been the executive director for that organization since then.
Kelly: Wow, that’s quite an odyssey. That’s very helpful.
Tell us about—you have this initial call in ’92 from a whistleblower, someone concerned at Hanford?
Carpenter: It was actually ’87. It was starting with this fellow named Casey Ruud. He was one of the first kind of major whistleblower. He was also a nuclear safety auditor. Because of the bomb factories and the publicity that was starting to happen, the New York Times was doing some good reporting on this, Keith Schneider and Matt Wald.
Lots of good articles started to come out in ’85 even, ’86 about the environmental consequences of making nuclear warheads nationwide. Casey was in the cross hairs of some of that because he had been hired as window dressing, “Hey, we have this commercial nuclear safety auditor.” He was trained in the commercial field. He worked for Bechtel, and he worked at all these plants as an inspector, so he knows what to do.
“We professionalized.” This is Hanford telling Congress, “We’re different now.” Casey took his job seriously, and was documenting horrendous safety problems at the Hanford site: missing plutonium that they couldn’t account for, designs that didn’t match the actual configuration of the facility, which is a very big deal. If you are relying on the design, on the blueprints, to run an operation, but that’s not what is actually happening out there, then you can have accidents, problems of all kinds, and they did.
Hanford had what are called “misroutings” of plutonium because it’s supposed to go from the glove box to tank B16, and ended up on the desert floor instead. Even though everyone turned the right valves and pushed the right buttons, it didn’t go to the right place. Again, you can have really serious accident as a result of that. He [Casey] documented 42 plutonium misrouting incidents, and just so many issues, plant after plant.
Hanford is really a big city. It’s really hundreds and hundreds of facilities during the production days. Reactors along the river, and reprocessing plants in the middle of the site with names like PUREX, Redox, New Plant, Plutonium Finishing Plant, etc. Workers called these plants “Queen Mary’s,” because of the size of these things. Even though they’re big, looking at them from the outside, a third of those facilities are actually underground. So, they’re even bigger than what they look like.
Each of those facilities had a purpose, mostly just to make plutonium or take out uranium. But to do that was a very complicated and messy process involving the dissolving of nuclear fuels and acid, and then using chemical treatments and filters to take the plutonium out of that, or uranium. The rest of it is highly radioactive goo. It goes in these tanks or it went straight to the soil or whatever they felt like they could do with it, if they were out of tank room.
Casey was documenting all the things that were wrong. He was horrified. He ended up ordering the shutdown of basically every major facility out there, which is what a QA [Quality Assurance] auditor is supposed to be able to do, is to say, “Until you get these problems fixed, you can’t operate.”
The big one was PUREX. PUREX was their only big still operating facility at the time he was an auditor, although Plutonium Finishing Plant was still going too. He said, “Neither of these facilities is safe enough to operate.” He put in his order to shut it down, and they just kept going. He was astounded. He goes, “No, you’re supposed to shut it down. I’m the auditor.”
They said, “National security, blah, blah, blah, sorry. “We’re going to fix these things. Just give us a few months, and we will definitely fix all these problems.” A year later they hadn’t fixed anything, because there wasn’t a budget to do so. It was the same with the Fernald site, by the way. All the sites I’ve been involved with is, plenty of money for the production mission and almost none for the safety mission or the environmental mission.
He ended up blowing the whistle. His audits found their way over to the Seattle Times. A reporter there named Eric Nalder wrote these series of articles, and Casey was eventually subpoenaed to testify in Congress. He was put under a lot of pressure to take his audits back—he has amazing stories about all this, by the way—which he did not buckle under. He sat up there and told the truth, and was fired. He literally got back to his job, and it was gone.
There was another hearing. They said, “We’re sorry,” hired him back, and then he was fired again. At this point, he’s contacting me because he’s seen me on TV at blah, blah, blah, so we started helping him. Then another one named Ed Bricker came forward and contacted me. We started doing what we could to file legal actions, because I’m an attorney.
Working out of the DC office, we did what we could to help these people. But since we’re also a public interest organization, [we also worked] to surface the allegations, make sure that Congress knew about it, make sure that agencies could investigate these allegations and do something about them. In those days, the Department of Energy had zero interest in talking to us and fixing anything. They saw us, and they saw these workers, as enemies of the state.
We ran across a series of memos about Ed Bricker, and it was called “Special Item Mole.” That’s a counterintelligence term, meaning that somebody who is within your organization who is reporting on your – like a spy in your organization, reporting outward. He was a mole to Congress. It’s like, “Really, who do you guys work for?”
“We think he’s a mole to Congress.”
It’s like, “Well, you work for Congress too. They’re funding your entire operation out here! How is he your enemy?”
They treated him like you would think. They followed him around, they wiretapped him, they turned other workers into spies against him and against us, when we came out to see him. They were exciting times, right? It was very interesting.
Eventually over time, the cleanup mission became the focus, as opposed to the production mission. In 1989, production officially ended—I think it was announced in 1990—“We’re done. We’re not going to make any more plutonium. From here on out it’s just going to be cleanup.” An agreement was signed with the Department of Energy, the State of Washington, and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] setting cleanup deadlines, the Tri-Party Agreement.
They were not used to oversight at Hanford at all. In fact, they would not let state inspectors on the site until this cleanup agreement happened. Even though there is nothing in the law that said they could stop them from coming on the site. They still kept them out, so the state of Washington said, “We’ll have to sue you.” The agreement resulted from that threat, basically.
That Tri-Party Agreement is still in place. There is still a regulatory presence, to some degree, at Hanford over the cleanup. Conditions have changed a lot. The new set of managers out there, they’re certainly not as secretive or as hostile, and workers who raised concerns are not treated like spies. Although they’re still not loved, they’re still not welcomed, so we still have business. We still have people that we’re helping. But at least Hanford is ashamed of itself when it gets caught retaliating against whistleblowers at this point as opposed to thinking, “That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
Our mission at my organization is the safe and effective cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site in a manner that protects human health, the environment and the future generations. That’s what we’re aiming for is, to see a transition in government attitudes and behaviors at the Hanford site that’s going to result in an effective clean up. That is my day, day to day is working with insiders about things that are going wrong, mostly, sometimes going right.
I have lots of meetings with managers and agency officials. I was just at Hanford last Thursday and Friday. I met with the site manager, met with the head of Department of Ecology’s regulatory program, Alex Smith. Met with a couple of workers who are out there, who have issues or problems they’re trying to get resolved.
Met with the union, one of the unions out there, because we have good relationships with some of those unions and we share information. We have the same agendas. We’re working some of the same programs to try to get Hanford to a place—and we’re decades away from it—where it’s a safe site that we’re not worried about an explosion or a fire that might spread contamination far and wide. Which is the case now, and will be the case I’m sure for another 10 years. There are areas at Hanford that are at serious risk of that kind of thing happening.
We hope to get beyond that to a point where actual cleanup is happening—of the tank waste, for instance—and there is an agreement on what the site looks like at the end of the day. “What is a cleanup going to get us?” We use the term “end-state.” “Is this going to be an agreed upon or a dictated end state? Is the government going to tell us what it’s going to look like? Is it going to have to be litigated? Is it going to have to be legislated, or is it going to be an agreed upon with all the stakeholders and the communities?”
We prefer the last one. We want to see the tribes, the communities out there, the environmental groups, the unions, all who care about what’s happening at the Hanford site to arrive at a point where we all agree, “You’ve done what you could, and you’re done with the cleanup at least for now, until better technologies come around.” Because we don’t have good technologies for all the things that need to be cleaned up at this point.
Kelly: He said he thought that document, the future use document was very, very helpful because it gave a template of what are the end states that everybody has signed off on. So, you may have something more particular in mind about what’s the end state?
Carpenter: Yeah, a document like that: A) not everyone was happy with that, not everyone was involved in it. It wasn’t a living document. If you went to the Hanford Advisory Board, which is a 32-member board that gives advice on Hanford cleanup—they’re passionate advocates for cleanup there, from all different perspectives—I’ll bet you one out of five people could tell you what that was, what that document said. Maybe less. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at it or referred to it.
Right now, the Department of Energy has proposed that it’s going to leave 4% of the tank waste in the sea farm tanks, which is one of the tank farms at the Hanford site, which turns out to be about 64,000 gallons of high-level waste. They want to put concrete on top of it to fill the tank up, and just leave that waste down there.
This is a June 4 proposal that just came out. It breaks the compact. A) That’s illegal. You can’t leave high-level nuclear waste buried at the Hanford site. That has to be dug up and vitrified and put into a deep geological repository, according to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. They said, “Oh yeah, we know that. That’s why we’re going to relabel this waste not high-level waste anymore, but low-level waste.”
We said, “What are you going to do to the waste? How are you going to treat it?”
They’re not. They’re just going to relabel it and say, “We’re done.” They want to do that with all the waste that was dumped out of these tanks as well into the soil.
Here’s something that most people don’t know. Hanford tanks contain 56 million gallons of high-level waste. That in and of itself is two-thirds of the inventory of the waste by volume in the United States. There’s 520 million gallons of high-level waste generated at the Hanford site according to the GAO [Government Accountability Office], which did a report on this last year.
I had to look at that figure a couple of times because I was aware of, “Oh, there’s 120 million gallons in the BC Cribs. There’s anywhere from one to 10 million gallons that has leaked out of these tanks because of leaks. So much waste was spilled as result of emptying these tanks or putting waste in these tanks. How does that add up to 520 million gallons?”
I don’t have an answer to that. I just know that once you make that waste, it doesn’t go away. It’s probably in the soils. The Department of Energy has always owned up to the fact that, “Yeah, that’s high level waste, and it’s going to have to be removed.”
Recently they’ve taken to saying “No, no, it’s low level waste.” What? “Yeah, we’re using this internal rule to call it low level waste.” There’s been litigation about this rule. I’m sure there will be again. That’s what I’m talking about is, we don’t have an enforceable end state.
When the Department of Energy can say, “Hanford is really just going to be a high level waste repository in all but name,” it really restricts the future use of that site severely. And will have a big impact on the Columbia River down the road as the waste seeps into the soil, into the groundwater, and to the river.
The DOE has done some studies on that. They’ve even told us, “Yeah, the levels of plutonium, if we don’t clean up the plumes beneath the tanks—not even granting that there will be future leaks—existing plumes would – you’d see plutonium levels at 300 times the acceptable limits a day on the shores of the Columbia River.”
“You can’t do that, right?”
“Well, okay, no.” In this day and age, money is driving the agenda. The costs of the cleanup are so high that the current administration is looking for shortcuts.
That’s what I’m talking about when it comes to the end state. Not a dusty document from the ‘90s that no one remembers, but a vibrant, shared vision that’s enforceable in a regulatory fashion saying, “Here’s where we’re going to get to.” That would not include leaving high level waste buried at the Hanford site.
Kelly: Is there a reaction? I’m sure you proposed this to people at Department of Energy?
Carpenter: They explained to me very patiently that there’s not that much money out there, and that they are under orders –
Kelly: To develop such a plan?
Carpenter: Right. “Oh, don’t worry, Tom. We will be vitrifying waste, but just not all of it.”
I said, “What about the waste in the soils?”
“We’ll see, but right now we’re just talking about sea farms.” They’re not good at answering uncomfortable questions, and they don’t express this vision.
We’ve said, “All right, so you’re leaving 64,000 gallons of high-level waste in the sea farm tanks. That’s your plan. There are 17 other tank farms. How much waste are you going to leave there?”
“This is a model for the other tanks.”
They’re going to leave waste at every tank farm in those tanks. They’re supposed to do a comprehensive assessment, saying, “Here’s what it’s going to look like at the end of the cleanup.” They’re not doing that. They’re not accounting for waste that’s in the soils below these tanks. When they put concrete in these tanks, will they be able to go after that waste in the soils? No. They’re going to foreclose the ability to go after waste under the tanks that has leaked out of the tanks. Again, that’s contrary to the existing laws.
They obviously won’t be able to go back and recover the 4% of the waste that they’ve left in some of these tanks. By the way, as an average. One tank has almost 10% of the waste left in the tank. It’s quite a bit of plutonium and other long-lived products. Again, they legally aren’t able to leave that much stuff in shallow land burial. For some reason, I guess until they’re actually sued, they’re just going to push ahead. I don’t know what they’re up to, other than trying to show to their bosses, “Oh yeah, we’re doing what it takes to save money out here.”
The fight is going to be in Congress, as to what Congress ends up doing in terms of funding. How much they get the vision that needs to happen to protect the public and future generations from what
I call “slow-motion fallout” at Hanford.
Kelly: Explain to me again, if you have a tank and it’s liquid waste and they want to leave 4% and then put concrete in the rest—is it liquid at the bottom, or is it going to be mixed in through [inaudible]?
Carpenter: It’s not liquid waste. Each tank is its own thing, but most of the tanks have layers, so there’s a liquid layer. There’s a salt cake layer that’s more solid, because they use sodium to neutralize the acid in the tanks because they’re carbon steel tanks and subject to corrosion. They had to chemically control the pH to prevent the corrosion.
Then the bottom of the tank is sludge. So roughly, there’s these three layers. Some of the sludge is sticky. Now it’s also where the heavy metals tend to go. There’s not an equal distribution of radionuclides, as you might imagine, in the liquid layer versus the middle layer versus the sludge layer. The sludge layer may end up having 50% of the radionuclide activity in the tank because again, heavy metals like plutonium will sink and end up in the sludge layer. That’s exactly the wrong layer that you want to leave with the tank.
Of course, it’s not as mobile as the liquids. They’ve removed most of the liquids. They are leaving some liquids behind. What they’re leaving behind is stuff that they could not economically remove.
They could get more waste, but it’s just not economical. We’re saying, “By what standard? Who says that you couldn’t spend more money and get more waste out of there?”
They go, “Well, we could.”
We say, “Well, then you got to do that. You can’t just leave that much waste in these tanks.” What is the right amount they can leave there? I don’t know. It’s obviously not going to be every molecule. Do we want them to dig up all these tanks? No. There’s probably a place and a time when you can say, “That’s pretty good, fill it with concrete, close the tanks.”
But the levels that they’re proposing to leave, without knowing the full scale of what they want to leave out there, is what’s really bothersome to us right now. It’s not a suitable location for the long-term storage or disposal of these kind of waste, which are dangerous in tiny quantities, microscopic quantities, in some cases, for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Some of the highly mobile radionuclides like Iodine-129 has a 17 million-year half-life, and it’s highly mobile.
Technetium-99 has a very long half-life as well, 114,000 years, I think. Again, highly mobile.
These are the kind of radionuclides that won’t stay in one place. They will end up going into the environment, and where do we know it goes from there? Because it doesn’t neutralize, it doesn’t dilute. It gets into organisms. Organisms tend to preferentially bioconcentrate things like iodine, because your thyroid loves iodine. Organisms need iodine. It doesn’t distinguish between the 129, the radioactive form of iodine and the radioactive [misspoke: non-radioactive] form, which makes it so dangerous.
This stuff is around for so long, then how much damage are you actually causing in the food chain and the biosphere all this time? We think we have a—I guess I’ll use the word awesome, in the true sense of the word—very heavy responsibility to prevent these kinds of materials from getting out into the river systems and into the food supplies and blowing around in the air any more than they already have from nuclear testing and accidents that have happened like Fukushima, Chernobyl.
Here at the Hanford site, they’re contained in tanks or in the soils. We have a chance to dig that stuff up, and isolate it and put it deep underground. We should do that, and not just say, “We really can’t afford it.” It costs another 10 million bucks to go after that little bit of 4%, which turns out to be a lot of waste. That’s the kind of argument we’re having about the tanks at this point.
We’re also having arguments about nuclear safety culture. It’s a very big topic with me, because when employees raise concerns about nuclear safety or environmental violations, instead of those concerns being welcomed and addressed and maybe the employee getting an award, people are often shut down, warned, threatened, harassed and fired. I’ve worked with hundreds of these people at the Hanford site. We’ve brought I don’t know how many lawsuits and complaints. It’s gotten better over the years, but the culture is still there.
If we’re going to prevent a fire or an explosion or an accident, those are the people that we need to assure are able to raise these kinds of concerns to prevent that kind of issue from happening. Everyone gives it the lip service it’s supposed to get. Congress, they pass laws, but changing a culture is so hard. Changing the way people think about it.
Our biggest enemy is really the contracts themselves, which reward contractors for meeting the deadlines, and actually give them bonuses if they beat the deadlines. You know, here’s Joe the IH tech, the industrial hygienist or the radiation tech, saying “No, no, no you got to shut this down; this isn’t safe.”
“No, no we’re on a roll here. Can’t you just put that aside?” A lot of times, they do. They take a risk, and get away with it. Sometimes they don’t get away with it.
They’re running machinery where the pump was vibrating violently; this is two weeks ago on the evaporator. The risk is that it fails, high level radioactive waste goes everywhere. You contaminate people, you might have a release outside the facility. They ran it anyway, because they were trying to meet a production quota. It took a worker to stop work.
Now, that worker is being examined. What can they do to him and how he’s the problem, not the vibrating pump. The pump is ruined. This million-dollar pump has to be replaced and it’s going to take six months to replace it. It was just stupid. The whole thing was stupid. But that’s how they approach those kinds of concerns at Hanford. It’s a place where there’s a lot of old timers, but they’re leaving.
The average age of Hanford worker I think is 54, 58, something like that. People are leaving in droves. They don’t have a whole lot of stuff written down, necessarily. I just see this confluence of aging equipment, poor procedures, and a new work force that doesn’t know what’s going on, along with a nuclear safety culture that rewards silence and punishes safety concerns being raised.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
I’m a little worried about that. I think the number one safety issue in the complex right now is safety culture. There are some members of Congress that agree, but obviously there are higher levels at the Department of Energy that petition them to do things. We have rule making petitions and try to get their attention, and we don’t get anywhere with that.
Kelly: What about the tunnel? People yesterday were telling me that they anticipated there might be a collapse in the tunnel in 1980 something. It’s been known to be structurally weak. It wasn’t until it actually collapsed—luckily, no one was hurt. These incidents, do they kind of help energize your awareness of, “You really got to slow down. We’ve got to fix these pipes and tunnels and whatever is at risk”?
Carpenter: It’s a good example of the kind of things that we’re worried about. That was a nice alarm or warning. Apparently, not much escaped from the tunnel. They were able to get on top of it and stop it from collapsing. Now, they have another tunnel they’re looking at, which they’ll probably end up filling with concrete to stabilize that as well. There are lots of facilities at the Hanford site where the risk is much higher than the tunnel itself.
The Z-9 Crib has 54,000 grams of plutonium. This is an astounding amount of plutonium, and we measure problem doses in the billionths of a gram. If you have a millionth of a gram in your lung—for Beagle dogs, most of them get cancer. They set these very low levels for how much plutonium can actually be inhaled by a person. 54,000 grams is a lot of plutonium. It’s even subject to criticality, because it doesn’t take but four or five pounds of plutonium to cause a criticality, or less than that.
This is in a hole in the ground. It’s kind of a bunker-like structure that also is subject to collapse.
And they know it. When I talked to the site manager about what keeps him awake at night—that does. He worries about that. We worry about what’s called the B Plant, which is a waste encapsulation storage facility, which has the Strontium-90, Cesium-137 capsules in these aging swimming pools. There is roughly 90 million curies of this stuff in these pools.
If you lost the cooling elements, if you stopped cooling the water, it would rapidly evaporate and cause a nuclear release, a release of strontium-90 and cesium to the environment, in short order. That much radioactivity is just astounding to think about. No one has inventories like that, in the world, anywhere. 90 million curies of this stuff is amazing. A liter of water at permissible level is seven trillionths of a curie. So, a curie is a lot. 90 million curies is a lot. That’s a big risk for these decaying, old pools that were built – it was built in 1970. This facility is not going to last. Everyone knows it. There’s leaks, there’s cracks. This is a crisis.
Kelly: Is this the K Basin?
Carpenter: No, it’s called the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility or B Plant, because it’s [inaudible] B Plant. There are maybe 20 of these facilities at Hanford with varying degrees of scary risk. Just mentioning a couple of them that have to be watched very, very carefully. The tanks themselves generate hydrogen gas.
These are the kind of things that we’re hoping get taken care of in short order in the next decade, so you don’t blow it. You don’t have an area that can’t be cleaned up. You really can’t clean up Chernobyl. You can’t. It’s hundreds of square miles of contaminated area. Fukushima is the same way. There’s areas around Fukushima that probably will never be cleaned up, for hundreds of years because of the levels of cesium and strontium-90. Some, they may be able to scrape enough topsoil off and take down enough buildings. But still even then, you wonder if they can get it to a point where it’s okay to be around this stuff.
We don’t want to go there with Hanford. We’re not there, unless you go to certain points on the site, but we have a chance to clean all that up. That’s what we’re about is, hoping and working towards a safer site, that doesn’t result in a release of contamination to the air or water or soils, or that spreads beyond the boundaries either now or in the future.
Kelly: Someone was explaining to me the budget for Hanford. You kind of gave us some insight into that. 3.4 billion if you count PNNL’s share, and so forth. A billion just to keep the place running, which I guess would be these facilities. Talk about what it takes today and what it might take, in the next decade, to achieve what you just described to keep these risks on the site in check.
Carpenter: Hanford cleanup is really expensive. It’s projected to be very expensive and take a long time. Our Congressional staffers remind me of that all the time. They’re worried about Congress getting tired of funding this. We have a Senator, Patty Murray, who is very good at getting money for the Hanford cleanup. We have a Congress that is paying attention. But what happens when she retires? People worry about that kind of thing. Where is the will in the nation to assure that the funds will be there in the future? I think that’s really the primary concern.
I’ll point out that the Brookings Institute did a study that in today’s dollars, it would be about 9 trillion dollars that it costs the United States to make nuclear weapons, and Hanford is one of those facilities. We’re looking at maybe 150 billion or 200 billion at the end of the road for Hanford cleanup, are some of the projections, depending on whose projection you want to believe and what assumptions you want to make. A tremendous amount of money, but peanuts compared to what we spent to make nuclear warheads. Peanuts, nothing.
It’s nothing compared to—let’s take the Chernobyl accident. Chernobyl was estimated to cost the Soviet Union 500 billion dollars, 500 billion. It bankrupted the Soviet Union. Some people think the fall of the Soviet Union was directly attributable to the Chernobyl accident. And they didn’t clean it up. They just kind of contained the mess as best they could. It’s that whole area in Ukraine is a blight on the land. A lot of people can’t live there or farm that used to farm there. A lot of cancers and whatnot happening, and a threat into the future.
A little bit of investment to stop that from happening in our own country is really a wise thing to do. We try to deliver that message to our own members of Congress. Personally, I think Hanford’s budget ought to be 10 times what it is. I do. I think that there ought to be a huge and significant effort to identify all the risks, all these big safety risks. Instead of saying, “In the next eight years, we hope to have the budget to go after this.” No, do it now. Do it simultaneously.
It’s the risk that we’re not actually even – they thought on the PUREX tunnels, “We have time,” despite all their earlier warnings. “It’s one of the risks.” It partially collapsed, and they realized they didn’t have time. Then they studied the engineering of the tunnel and said, “This is really bad,” and had to get on top of it. It was a diversion of a lot of money and time to stabilize the tunnels.
Twenty years ago, if they had decided, “Let’s take care of PUREX tunnels. Let’s empty those tunnels, get the stuff out of there, get the railroad cars out, deal with what’s inside appropriately.” Then we wouldn’t be worried about that now, but we are having to worry about that. We’re not going to be in the same place if a tank collapses, for instance, if a high-level waste tank or B-plant.
If the pools of water there evaporate and there’s a significant release of cesium or strontium-90, you won’t get within five miles of that place. It’s going to be too hot. That’s a lot of radioactivity, and it’s going to take hundreds of billions of dollars and lots of effort. The cleanup is over; there’s no clean up at that point – it’s just containment. That’s why I say we need to really put the necessary money and management, better management, into this effort.
It needs to be looked at as the crisis that it is, and it’s not. Like $2.2 billion a year, $2.1 now, $2.4 – we’re running out of time, that’s how I see it. It’s not just the long-term future threat. It’s a present, real threat that one day if we’re not lucky, something bad is going to happen. And it’s going to cost us a lot more money and maybe cost us some in human health and the environment, if we don’t watch out.
I think there is a balance between getting it done quickly and getting it done safely. Safety has to be a priority and the priority, which doesn’t necessarily mean not doing anything. But choosing some of the better options. I think vitrification is the way to go. I agree with what the Department of Energy has been trying to do, to vitrify this nuclear waste. They’ve had some success in South Carolina, doing that in other countries.
Hanford’s waste is complicated, and there are technical challenges. Army Corps of Engineers and GAO [General Accountability Office] and others have done studies of Hanford’s system and really pointed to a lot of issues and problems with mismanagement, with incompetence, with not having the right people in there, too often switching strategies. It’s not always the DOE’s fault. A new administration comes in with different emphasis, a new president or a new Secretary of Energy, or even a new Assistant Secretary of Environmental Management. Even a new site manager might come and say, “We’re going to focus on this now.”
Everyone goes, “No, stop! We’ve got to focus on the plans that we have in place.”
In 1996 or 1994, I was on this tank waste task force. We spent months meeting and talking about
a plan for what to do with the tank waste. Tribes were there and the communities were there, environmental groups. Everyone who really cared to be a part of it, was a part of it and came out with a really good document. That was the template for, “Yeah, we’re going to remove the waste from the tanks. We’re going to vitrify that waste and it’s going to go to a deep geological repository.”
Since then, there have been a lot of efforts to say, “No, no let’s use concrete.” No, concrete is not going to last. Concrete doesn’t work for high level waste or for long lived waste. Nonetheless, it’s cheaper, so DOE reaches for that.
Now instead of the waste treatment plant and getting that to work, it’s like, “We’re going to use this tank site cesium removal,” is the latest thing. That sounds actually pretty risky. Who came up with this idea? Have you thought it through? Where are you going to put the cesium? It’s unanswered questions. It was something they just came up with three months ago. As opposed to doing something else called direct feed low-activity waste—this was this whole facility they were going to build. They walked away from that, after spending how many hundreds of millions of dollars designing it, saying, “This is what we’re going to do, because we’re not sure the pretreatment plant at the waste treatment plant is going to work.”
There’s just not the flexibility and the right systems in place to handle this problem. If you go back to the urgency of World War II and the Manhattan Project and having to get it done, they had scientists and engineers and chemists working on different aspects of the problem urgently. They were ruthless about things that didn’t work.
It’s like, “Yeah, we just spent 5 million bucks looking at whether or not polonium was going to do this for us or whatever.” If it didn’t work, it’s like, “Okay we’re not doing that now, shut that down. Transfer everyone over to here, work on this problem instead.” So much they didn’t know, and yet they got it up and going anyway. Which was a mixture of both teamwork and a different time. But in the urgency and money that was available to do it all, we don’t have that now.
Now, there’s this guy Bob Alvarez, I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to him. He calls Hanford, to Congress, it’s that “curiosity in the backyard of Washington State.” It’s like, “Oh, we got to fund that again this year?” People say things like the “Han-a-ford site.” “Stanford.” “How many tanks are there out there?” “I don’t know, tanks?”
It’s not well understood, and the crisis isn’t really understood. Partly because there’s too much good news. The communities at Hanford want to say, “We’ve done all these great things at Hanford, and cleanup is going well.” And the DOE: “The cleanup is going really well.” It’s like, “Actually, not so much.” There’s this disconnect between what I think is really happening and what they say is happening.
I understand they want to put a good face on it. No one likes to fund things that aren’t working. But on the other hand, you do have to look at all the scientific and engineering options on the table and try them out until you get the right one. Nuclear waste is in that category. It’s a huge threat to the region, now and in the future. It would be really great to come up with an answer. I don’t have that answer; I don’t think anyone does right now.
Kelly: It’s complex. You mentioned you spent a lot of time in Russia, was that the ‘90s?
Carpenter: It was late ‘90s and up to 2005, until I got disinvited.
Kelly: Got disinvited; what were you doing there?
Carpenter: We were going at the invitation of some of the organizations and groups out there that were like ours. Citizen groups and lawyers and scientists focused on their own facilities in Russia, like Mayak, and Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk—mostly in the Ural Mountains in Siberia. That’s where their versions of Hanford or Oak Ridge were located.
We would go for three weeks at a time. Sometimes we had a videographer with us. Almost always, we had scientists with us. I’m a lawyer, sometimes we had another lawyer along. We’d go meet with our counterparts, activists in Russia—kind of a rare breed these days. Natalia Mironova is one that we met with a lot there, Sergei Plushenko. And go to their towns and visit their sites, do environmental sampling, which is something we do at Hanford.
We’d go out to the river and to people’s houses in the communities around these sites. In Hanford, we’ve certainly done that a lot. If something tickles the Geiger counter, you say, “What’s this?” and send it in for an analysis and report. We recently did that at Hanford with car filters from workers who were parked near the Plutonium Finishing Plant that had the release of plutonium into the air, contaminated some 41 workers inside their bodies.
We said, “Gee, well if it contaminated workers and they breathed it in, what about the car filters?” Sure enough, we found several cars that had levels of radiological contamination on them above what you would expect to find. Certainly, coming from the Hanford site because of the identity—we’re doing the same thing in Russia, and visiting facilities there and trying to stay out of trouble, but not always successfully.
On one trip, we got arrested and interrogated for several hours. It was actually very scary. That was at Novosibirsk. They finally let us go because we weren’t trespassing, but we were close to trespassing. That was enough. We were telling them we were there because we didn’t want them to think we were committing espionage or something like that. They were just hassling us.
Other places, we found ourselves literally in hot water, where everything around us was so radioactive. It’s like, “What the hell am I doing here?” We went to this little town—it’s well documented to be a contaminated town, called Muslimova. “Ova” is a common end of – that’s how you call a city, “city of.” This was a Tartar village, full of Muslims. The Soviets had not evacuated this village among the thousands of other villages that should have been evacuated, because of the contamination of the Techa River, clearly to study the villagers that call themselves “white mice.”
We spent a day there, and the levels of contamination—all my trips to Russia were abject lessons in, “This is what happens when you don’t take care of your safety and environmental conditions at these places.” Because the Soviets did not, the Russians are not putting the money necessary into it or the attention or the time. It scared the hell out of me. The whole place scared the hell out of me.
I met and talked with Alexey Yablokov, who is head of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Chernobyl totally radicalized this guy. He was like, “Oh my God, nuclear is so bad.” After having studied the effects—and he was assigned to study the effects by the president or the premier. He did this study, and was just amazed by it all. We hung out with him a lot.
At one point, he said that he estimated that 14% of the land mass of Russia was contaminated above legal limits. If you ever look at a map, it’s a sixth of the land in the world, Russia. But between atomic testing and the spills and the fires and the explosions, huge amounts of area that are just—a lot of times, people are living there. It’s just too much area.
I went home thinking, “This can’t be allowed to happen in the United States. They did it all wrong there.” After our last trip, which was in 2005, I guess we touched a nerve and our own government essentially told us that we weren’t welcome to go back there. That they didn’t care if we went back, but we probably shouldn’t go back. Then our friends that hosted us there agreed with that because we asked them, we said, “We’re being warned not to go back.”
They said, “Yeah, you shouldn’t come back. We love you, but no. It’s gotten too hot.” Putin was really starting to consolidate control. They were looking at environmentalists from the United States or from Europe as spies.
I’m glad I got the warning and I’m glad I didn’t go back. I have no plans to go back. But we have 20 hours of raw video from our trips there that I keep wondering what to do with. I’ve never looked at it, but documenting a lot of our trips and some of the places we went and that kind of thing.
Kelly: That’s fascinating. Did you help Kate Brown with her Plutopia [Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters]?
Carpenter: No, we never talked before she wrote that book. I read her book. I was amazed; she had a lot of great stuff in there. I wish we had talked, because I would have added to what she had to write from my own experiences. Because I probably spent the equivalent of maybe a month and a half or two months crawling around Ural Mountains in Siberia looking at their facilities. We rented a boat, went up the Tom River, looked at the Tomsk or Seversk-7 site.
We collected this algae from the river and put it on the deck of the boat. It was so hot that the radiation detector swamped out. You’ve seen radiation detectors – these little red, med alerts or rad alerts. It would, “Tick, tick, tick.” If it’s hot it will go, “Tick, tick, tick, tick.” If it’s really hot it will go, “Whir, whir, whir.” But there is a point where it can’t handle it, and it goes, “Areee, areee,” and that’s what this was doing. It was like, “Get this off the boat!” It was hot. That was on video. We have a video of that, and we posted that. It is probably on the internet somewhere; you can still see it because we put it on the internet.
This is from a river. There’s milk cows out there, and farmers coming out and getting the cows in and milking them. I’m going, “Oh no.” We didn’t take any milk to sample it, but we’re knee deep in hot mud out there. That was pretty scary. It was like we were in the middle of a nuclear disaster and people don’t even know it.
Some of the materials that we collected and analyzed—we got some home, amazingly—showed Phosphorous-32, which has a 14 day half-life. It’s gone in 140 days between half-lives. 14 days and it’s gone, and yet, we’re finding considerable amounts of it. Phosphorous is another substance that your body, any organism will take up; therefore, it’s very dangerous. It’s quite hot. The shorter the half-life, the more radiation comes off it. Anything with a very short half-life is very, very energetic.
Uranium is a very slow, because it has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. It’s just like, “Tick, tick.” It’s very slow to give off this energy. If it’s a few seconds, it’s really hot. If it’s a few weeks or a few months, it’s pretty hot. Cesium has a 29-year half-life, so it’s pretty hot. But it’s also just the biological characteristics of—phosphorous is really irradiated natural phosphorous in the environment, that is hit with neutron bombardment in the reactors and comes out as a radioactive product of the reactors.
How the hell did that happen? How did we find Phosphorous-32 in the river in Russia? Either they had a hole in their cooling loop, or they were openly dumping it. Some other explanation was suggested to us that they were dumping nuclear fuel basically in the mud out there, and it compacted and was creating fission products that were going into the river. I think that’s a credible explanation.
There was this really intrepid set of students that had these uniforms and the permission to go out there and do some sampling connected with the university. They looked like boy scouts with their uniforms, and they were given instruments. It was kind of like a feel-good thing. They described to me how they went out to this lake on site and they were looking with their instruments, and one of them saw a duck land in this lake.
They carry shot guns and they shot the duck to eat, because it’s a forage economy out there, it’s poor as hell. They put the duck in the backpack. They decided to take one last measurement; they held their wand out. It was really, really hot. Whichever direction they turned was really, really hot, and they were freaking out because they thought they were in the middle of a nuclear accident. It was the duck. The duck was so hot, it was like the radiation was coming through his body and he was measuring up here. They figured this out, and threw it on the ground and ran.
They told the plant about it. The plant came out and collected it and said, “It will take 100 years for the radiation to die down enough to be able to tell you what it was, because it was too hot of a sample right now.” They had to encase it in lead and put it in water. That’s how hot that little lake was, which they’ve used as a radioactive waste dump.
I could go on and on about what I saw in Russia. It’s just many, many hours’ worth of stories. Plutonium along the shores of the Yenisei River—it’s like 60 miles of contamination on the Yenisei, which is next to the Krasnoyarsk plant, and they know it. They say, “Yeah, well, don’t go there. There’s plutonium contamination everywhere.”
They’ve really trashed their environment and no one knows it, no one really writes about it. Canadian broadcasting did some show on it back in 1997 or something. But otherwise not much press, not much awareness much less in Russia about it.
As the book itself makes clear. I think her book [Plutopia] really did kind of spell out how bad it was. Some of the stories, like living in those little towns serving these plants, like Ozyorsk. Ruthenium flakes into the town and people just, “That’s it, I’m leaving.” They leave and see how bad it really is out there and how cushy it was, because the Soviets had made this a little paradise, a “Plutopia,” as she says.
They would be back in six weeks, two months saying “Please let us back in.” Because waiting in a bread line all day long was no fun to get gruel, and they had all kinds of great stuff in that town. And they said, “Oh well, I guess we’ll get irradiated.” Hanford had it good in the same way. That’s how they attracted people to move there.
Some of that compact is over. They don’t treat workers very well there. They’re having problems hanging onto them. We’re attracting new workers to move out to—even pipefitters, which is craft work. I was talking to the union, the pipe fitters union, and they were saying, “Guys, they could work any number of places around here and get the same wage and not have to put up with Hanford, and the risk of irradiation and bad management and stupid rules.” They’re having problems attracting people and keeping them to go work out there. So, it’s interesting.
I mean, certainly a lot of cleanup has happened of the ground water and the river. I’m not entirely convinced that the river cleanup is as good as they say because we still find hot spots along the river. It may take a while to actually get to the point where people can safely camp or live there. They are certainly places I wouldn’t go camping or take my family or my dog out. But it’s getting there.
The problem is that there’s so many on-site plumes of radioactivity. If they don’t clean up the tanks, they don’t clean up those soil columns, then all that stuff will just get re-contaminated over time. That cleanup will be for naught, because those plumes will move back in. It’s almost like yeah, they did that.
Kelly: Why don’t you explain where are they concentrated, and then what was left behind?
Carpenter: Maybe the best way to talk about it is this. I mentioned the Fernald site earlier on in Cincinnati, Ohio. I noticed that the government removed the buildings at the site, but left contaminated soil and ground water in place there, and said that was a big success. It’s not a success.
They did the same at Rocky Flats. They cleaned down to three feet of soil; they pumped concrete into some buildings underground. They removed all the aboveground structures, so you just see a field now. But there’s horrendous levels of plutonium left in the soils, and it’s not well documented.
They didn’t do a good job of that, but they want to turn it into a wildlife refuge. There are lakes so contaminated that there are signs around it saying, “Do not enter this lake,” “Do not use this lake”, etc. And it’s written about, it’s known. That also is held up as a success. Instead of spending 34 billion dollars on the cleanup at Rocky Flats, they spent seven, and that’s why it’s a success.
The same agency has turned its sights on the Hanford site. I go, “Oh, I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to knock down buildings and take care of the obvious parts, and walk away from the rest of it.” That won’t be a cleanup, to me. I don’t think the communities will find that acceptable or the state of Washington, or the state of Oregon—because they take a lot of this waste, they’re downstream.
That’s what we’re on the lookout against is, to assure that the cleanup is resilient, robust. That it continues, that there’s a lot of transparency associated with it, and that the communities that are affected by this have a say so and when it’s done. The river corridor now, it’s a beautiful river. We go down the river as much as we can. It’s definitely an area of the state worth preserving, the white bluffs, there’s endangered species there. It’s not a waste site in the desert. It really has historical and natural value. It’s a place that needs to be cleaned up and usable for future generations. That’s what we want to see happen.
I’m not so sure that’s what DC has in mind. Not everyone at the Department of Energy or in Congress wants to spend the money necessary to get us there. I think there’s a lot of frustration in Congress looking for answers of what’s going to work. I keep hearing that from Senators, saying, “What’s going to work?” and, “We’re tired of the jumping around.”
I look at, for instance, a plant that should be operating right now, it’s called the waste treatment plant. It was supposed to vitrify nuclear waste from the tanks. We didn’t build new tanks to hold the waste because it was supposed to be up and running by the year 2007. So, hot operations. In 2009, we were really at that point should have had glass logs. It didn’t. The reason it didn’t is because the contractor failed to use a nuclear safety approach and failed to put in the appropriate assurance quality control for the design.
They had whistleblowers. The manager of research and technology came out and blew the whistle on their 50 design problems that they didn’t have a solution for. What they had was a plan to address it. They said, “We resolved these issues, because we have a plan.”
He goes, “No, no, you haven’t validated your plan. It’s just a plan.”
“Oh no, that’s enough, Walt.”
Walt Tamosaitis was his name. He got fired for raising his concerns. He was a guy with 40 years at DuPont, PhD, high level scientist, responsible for lots of budget, and third in line to the report to the top person. They fired him, just with no notice. “You’re out.”
Followed then by the manager of nuclear safety, environmental nuclear safety, her name is Donna Busche. She testified in Walt’s stuff. The Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board held hearings because of Walt. She showed up, answered honestly. It took them a while to finally get rid of her, but they did get rid of her. They fired her too, had no basis or reason for firing her. They just fired her.
The chief engineer was also pushed out. I think he still has an issue going on. He worked for the Department of Energy, his name is Gary Brunson. He never testified in Congress or spoke to the press, but he made sure that his stuff got out there through me. We publicized his letters and all his concerns.
Now you have the manager of Research and Technology, the manager of Nuclear Safety and the Chief Engineer, and who are you missing? Oh yeah, the Chief Scientist, he also blew the whistle, and he was in USA Today with his concerns. He gave interviews about all the design and other problems with the waste treatment plant. They were numerous and they would take me all afternoon to describe them all. But suffice it to say if you opened up that plant with these problems unresolved, you’d be risking hydrogen gas explosions, nuclear criticalities, failures of the facility that threatened the cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco.
Their allegations had merit. They were evidenced. They were investigated. Eventually, the Department of Energy admitted it was all true and had to take the design because they were ready to what they call “pivot from design to construction,” no—“design to commissioning, construction to commissioning.” “We’re done with construction. We’re going to commission the facility,” meaning, “We’re going to start putting it through its paces.”
Secretary of Energy said, “Oh no you’re not. You’re going back to your blueprints.” That’s kind of where they’ve been since 2012, trying to recover from that.
What we said at that point in time was, “You put in equipment and materials and workmanship that has no pedigree. You put in tanks and steel and electrical switches and piping that you have no idea where it came from, or if it’s validated or if it will work. It lacks what’s called traceability, and you can’t open a nuclear facility without that.”
That was Zimmer’s problem. Essentially, that is an unrecoverable issue. You can’t work around that issue. In 2012 we said, “You’re done. Knock it down and restart over. You’d be much better off doing that.” Of course, politically untenable. So, they keep trying to fix it.
Just two weeks ago, the Army Corps of Engineers came out with yet another study saying, “Your pretreatment a facility and your high-level waste facility, you’re having problems trying to get that up and going. You ought to just focus on your low activity waste facility. If you can get that going by 2022, that will at least show you can do something out here. I’d put all your focus and emphasis on that, and not put any money or further work into these other facilities.”
If you actually do that, if you give up on these facilities and let them sit for four or five years, they’re toast. You can’t do that with pumps and machinery, etc. just like you can’t do it with a car. Things wear out just sitting there. They age out. They’ll have real issues if they try to come back. But I think they already may be there anyway.
I’m pretty pessimistic about the approach they’ve taken, and how they’ve painted themselves into a corner with the waste treatment plant. I’m hoping they can at least vitrify some low activity waste. I think they’re going to have to do a do-over on vitrification and come up with new approaches and new technologies.
One of the design issues was in the ‘90s, the Department of Energy hired the British to design our waste treatment plant. They used something called black cell design. Black cell is called that because they take all these nuclear processes that are supposed to separate nuclear waste, in a huge room the size of a football field or two football fields and as high, just loaded with tanks and pipes and equipment.
Once you seal it off and start it up, you don’t have lights in there, you don’t have entries into there. You can’t get in to inspect, to repair, to replace equipment that’s failed. It’s supposed to operate for 45 years with no inspection, no repair and no replacement. If something breaks any time in there—a pipe breaks—it contaminates the whole facility, and you now have this huge, highly radioactive facility. What’s that going to cost to clean up? Nobody knows and the facility is useless, if not worse. It may be a safety threat as well.
Who thought of this? The Brits. They were doing this on very small scale in Britain. They said, “We’ve never made anything this big here. This is huge.” It’s dumb. Hanford engineers are tearing out their hair, because Hanford invented canyon technology, which is, you have holes in the floor in a canyon—that’s where the high-level waste stuff goes, in these highly shielded holes in the floor.
When you need something to happen, you lift this giant lid off with a crane, you take the highly radioactive stuff out, all the processes are happening. Put the lid back on, easy to work with. Anyway, they didn’t use canyon technology for their waste treatment plant. They just used a British design. Why? Because it was cheap. That’s who won the contract, that’s who won the bid, so now we’re stuck in the year 2018 with this stupid design. Everyone admits it’s a stupid design.
It’s like, “Well, change.”
“No, no we’ve put all this money into it.” The GAO says that we have spent 20 billion dollars on attempting to vitrify Hanford waste or treat Hanford’s nuclear waste in the tanks. That was two years ago, so obviously we spent more than that now. It just keeps going, and they don’t change anything. That’s what drives me crazy. It’s like, “Change something. Do something different.”
Until Congress yanks the funding from it, or says, “Do something different or you don’t get paid,” it just goes. Frankly, our own political system in the state of Washington is not too bothered by the fact that this little Tri-Cities area, in the southeastern part of the state is getting 2.5 billion dollars a year in money. All these jobs and it’s doing great. Real estate is doing great.
Otherwise, it’s just soy beans and potatoes, vineyards. There’s nothing in eastern Washington, but there’s Hanford, and there’s all this money. It’s not bad for the state economy for this to happen. They don’t want to kill any golden gooses, so they’re not going to press too hard. They do want it cleaned up, don’t get me wrong, but they’re also interested in the jobs and the money. Who wouldn’t be? What state wouldn’t be?
The black cells are in the pretreatment plant, so nothing happens without pretreating it for vitrification. Because you have to remove certain constituents that are bad for the glass, like chromium, and certain radionuclides, if you want it to be low activity waste. You have to process that waste somehow. The pretreatment plant is the first step, and that’s the facility where there are the most problems.
We had this picture on our wall where they tested what are called pulse jet mixers, which is to mix the waste in these tanks. They tested them for like three days with a simulant, not even the nuclear waste. It corroded the pipes, so they had gaping holes in the pipe and they were very obvious. In three days! They’re supposed to work 45 years without repair, inspection or replacement. It was a real wake up call.
Then it turns out that they designed the facility to handle plutonium particles at 20 microns, small particles. Why? Because the biggest particle of plutonium in the tanks was five, so they’re going to overdesign it and make it 20 microns.
Did they look? No. When they looked, they found 700 micron-sized particles, which means as they mixed this waste with these underpowered pulse jet mixers—which are akin to turkey basters, where you suck liquid up, then you push it back in, suck it up, push it back in. Well, it takes five minutes to recharge and then push it back in, and there’s these zones of influence on the bottom. There are these circles where they work, and then there’s all this material in circles around it. Guess what that material is? Plutonium.
That causes buildup of plutonium. That causes hydrolysis, which is the generation of hydrogen gas, and criticalities. They could not guarantee that those things would not happen through using these pulse jet. Well, it got worse when it was like 700 microns versus 20 microns. It’s the stuff they’re finding out after the plant is built.
They just weren’t careful. They had what’s called fast track, they fast tracked the facilities so they would design a bit and then they would build to that design. They actually fell behind on the design part and had workers waiting for the engineers to finish the next phase of the design.
It’s like, “No, this is not how you do this!” Everyone said it, GAO said it, everyone said, “You should not be fast-tracking this facility. You should build a pilot plant, a small, small, small one and prove that you can do it and scale it up.” Didn’t do it. That was their plan, but they said it’s too expensive.
Anyway, it’s not being done right. It wasn’t done right. They were warned it was not being done right. They didn’t change, and partly because of the budget. It’s not all the Department of Energy’s fault, I’m sure there’s Congress saying, “This is too expensive.” At some point, the fear is that Congress says, “Fine, put a big fence around it,” and you’re done with it until some disaster happens, and then, “Oh how did this happen?”
That’s how humans are, aren’t they? You wait for the disaster to happen to do something about it. The Japanese didn’t put in that tsunami wall [at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant] in high enough, and they put the generators in the flood plain. Engineers told them not to. “Oh well, we’d have to change—that would cost another 20 million dollars to put it up on the hillside. We’re not going to do that.” What is the cost of that accident now? What are they up to, 400 billion dollars? I don’t know. It might be 600 billion; it might be a trillion before it’s all over.
We’re worried, and doing what we can. There are a lot of good people working on the cleanup. A lot of good people within the Department of Energy, within the EPA, and the State of Washington. We do get together with them and talk about cleanup. We have a forum for shared conversation on challenging issues at Hanford once a year in a neutral location, the mountains, and two days of chatter. No one is taking notes, there’s no media present. We have these agreements that we’re going to network and talk and get to know each other.
We do drive the conversations toward solutions and talking about what’s needed. We do exercises like: “The year is 2061. Hanford has been cleaned up, everyone is happy. There’s no lawsuits, how did this happen?”
We have to work backwards from a process perspective on how we got there, in small groups. The small groups all get together in the big group and report back. They’re just so amazing, how all these very different perspectives from all these groups come up with really some of the same values and principles and methods on how you get to that clean up.
If only we can get to the point where we can implement that, that’s really what we’re looking for. There’s nothing surprising. Transparency, stakeholder participation, a nuclear safety culture. We think they need to build new tanks right away to contain future leaks that are undoubtedly going to be coming from leaking tanks; a focus on an end-state, an agreed upon end-state that everyone can get behind. Those are the kind of things that we’re seeing are needed.