hanford cash01.jpg
Today's Comment of the Day is a bonus two-for-one!

On the one side there's Joshua Frank, a man who has spent years researching problems at


Comment of the Day: Department of Energy v. Joshua Frank

hanford cash01.jpg
Today's Comment of the Day is a bonus two-for-one!

On the one side there's Joshua Frank, a man who has spent years researching problems at the Hanford Nuclear Site and is the author of this week's Seattle Weekly cover story on that very subject.

And on the other side there's Geoff Tyree, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy and the Hanford Site.

They don't exactly see eye to eye on the topic of who, if anyone, would be in danger should some of Hanford's 177 underground tanks of radioactive waste explode.

Tyree attacks Frank, writing:

We're working to make sure the cleanup of Hanford is done right and as quickly as possible, so it's tough to argue with the concluding sentence of this article, which is stating the obvious. However, the descriptions of what could happen (risk) and potential impacts to people living in the region (impacts) are so grossly inaccurate that it would be irresponsible to leave the readers with this impression.

The emergency planning hazards assessment done for the Hanford Site waste tanks shows there are no events that would result in a release of contaminated material that would require any action by the public, as determined by health standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. This analysis includes fires and explosions caused by flammable gas. These events are described in the analysis as "beyond extremely unlikely." This is in stark contrast to the characterization provided by the author (and not attributed to a source) in the article as "not an entirely unreasonable possibility" as well as the author's claim that the effects could be experienced for hundreds or thousands of miles (as far as Spokane, Montana, Canada).

We'd like to think the editors of Seattle Weekly and the readers would want to be accurately informed on a topic that people in the region take seriously (when they think of it), especially when the article deals with public health and safety.

To which Frank responds:

Geoff Tyree of the DOE writes that "there are no events that would result in a release of contaminated material". This statement is misleading and inaccurate based on information and data obtained from a nuclear waste tank explosion at the Mayak facility in the Soviet Union in 1957. The tank that blew up at Mayak was similar in makeup and contents to those now containing waste at Hanford.

Admittedly, these types of catastrophic events were greatly reduced when the State of Washington and the DOE entered into a so-called "Consent Decree" that led to the stabilization of Hanford's Single Shell Tanks that were leaking in the past. But the risk has not entirely been eliminated - and won't be for some time, not until the tanks are emptied and turned into glass.

The tank waste, currently held in underground containers, is to one day be sent through pipes for miles across Hanford to the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP). There the waste is to be converted into the glass rods. This process makes for new accident possibilities. The DOE is currently conducting Waste Treatment Analysts, which evaluates the potential for hydrogen gas detonations and nuclear criticality within the confines of the WTP's Pretreatment Facility - the place where this waste first enters. The possibility that an accident could occur during the retrieval, transfer, or processing of the waste cannot be ruled out. That's why extra care must be made to assure that safety precautions are built into the design of the facilities. Current investigations suggest that there are concerns about the quality of the construction of the facilities. As I write in my article, these very issues have recently been raised by Dr. Tamosaitis of URS, a Bechtel subsidiary.

Apparently, Mr. Tyree is not aware of Mayak's failure, which DOE scientists like Hanford's Dr. Donald Alexander, who studied its aftermath, acknowledge could happen at the Hanford site if something were to go devastatingly wrong.

It was a disaster to be sure. At least 200 people died of radiation sickness immediately after the Mayak accident when a waste tank cooling system failed, causing a chemical explosion. Over 9,000 square miles of land was contaminated with radioactive fallout - a huge territory in the Siberian side of the eastern Urals. Additionally, 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and approximately 470,000 individuals were exposed to radiation. The Soviet Union covered up the Mayak accident for decades. In fact, photographer Gary Powers was shot down by the Soviets as he tried to snap high altitude photos of the devastation in May 1960. It was simply not something the Soviets wanted to be documented.

Even the Washington Department of Ecology notes that an explosion at Hanford is a possibility, writing, "As long as the radioactive waste remains in the tanks, there is a risk of continued leaking, or possibly an explosion or a tank dome collapse. This type of event could release radioactive and chemically-hazardous materials into the water, land and air, creating significant risk to the environment, agriculture, human health and the regional economy."

Case in point. In July 1993, a "burping" waste tank at Hanford was emitting large amounts of hydrogen until it was stabilized by an innovative mixer pump. This hydrogen, if ignited, could have led to a tank explosion with horrible consequences similar to that of Mayak's. There is no way of guaranteeing that such a gas release will not happen again even in the newly constructed Waste Treatment facilities.

Fortunately the DOE is better equipped to deal with arising issues than the Soviets were at Mayak in the late-1950s. This is also not to say that such an accident is imminent -- it is simply a worst case scenario. Nonetheless, it is a possibility that becomes greater the longer this toxic waste stays put.

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