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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cracks In Hanford’s Clean Bill Of Health Congressional Watchdogs Want To Make Sure Nuclear Facility Plugs Leaks

Casey Ruud and John Brodeur made an unlikely team, but former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary wanted change at Hanford.

O’Leary and her cleanup czar, Tom Grumbly, chose the high-profile whistle-blowers in 1993 to work on the agency’s most dangerous problem: Hanford’s leaking, high-level nuclear waste tanks.

Now it’s uncertain the program the two men pioneered to track the leaks will continue, and two U.S. senators want to know why.

In a June 19 letter, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, asked the General Accounting Office to investigate Hanford’s efforts to study the soil between the surface and the water table below the tanks.

Good information on this area, known as the vadose zone, is critical to the Hanford cleanup, the senators noted.

“If waste from tank leaks and spills and from crib operations is more mobile than suspected, the ground-water at Hanford and the Columbia River are at risk.” they said.

Furthermore, the Department of Energy’s plans to clean up the oldest tanks may even make the contamination worse, the two senators said.

The congressional investigation comes after two years of battles over Ruud’s and Brodeur’s work studying the vadose zone.

O’Leary’s decision to give Ruud a prominent oversight role was controversial at Hanford. He and Brodeur made powerful enemies among Hanford contractors in the mid-1980s for reporting unsafe facilities and unexplored tank leaks.

Their revelations helped spark high-level investigations that shuttered Hanford’s bomb factories and led to scathing reports on tank mismanagement. Rockwell Hanford Co. and Westinghouse Hanford Co. lost lucrative government contracts to run Hanford.

Ruud’s new job with DOE gave the former safety auditor direct oversight over a Hanford contractor. Brodeur, a geophysicist, went to work for a DOE technical team in Grand Junction, Colo., with expertise in bore-hole geophysics.

Their teamwork led to a stunning discovery in 1995: Dangerous cesium 137 had leaked at least 130 feet under some of Hanford’s oldest tanks, the SX Tank Farm in Hanford’s 200 West area.

They also sparked an investigation that concluded toxic chromium and radioactive technetium 99 from the tanks had reached the ground water 210 feet below that flows toward the Columbia River, 10 to 15 miles away.

In May, new work from their program found that cesium and uranium have leaked deep below yet another set of tanks five miles closer to the Columbia in the 200 East area.

The discoveries contradict Hanford managers’ earlier assertions that leaking tank wastes never went deep into the soil - and never reached ground water.

“This affects every project at Hanford,” Ruud said. “It’s huge, and we do not know enough about it.”

Ruud and Brodeur won major national awards last year for their work in the tank farms. But when O’Leary left her Cabinet post in December, Ruud lost his DOE oversight job.

Meanwhile, DOE officials are planning to turn over much of the tank work to private companies.

That’s a mistake, Brodeur said.

“I don’t see a recognition by upper management at DOE of the importance of vadose zone characterization,” Brodeur said.

Using computer models, Hanford managers “laid out all this five years ago. They had an idea that the radiation didn’t move very far. And then we come along and say, ‘Wait a minute, you haven’t properly studied this,”’ Brodeur said.

Some managers thought Ruud and Brodeur were wrong about the contamination. They suggested the radiation was found so deep because it had trickled into test holes drilled below the tanks to look for the contamination.

“Nobody wanted to believe us,” Brodeur said.

Last year, the Energy Department appointed a panel of outside experts. The scientists ordered two new bore-holes drilled, and confirmed that the radiation didn’t leak into the holes.

Learning what’s happening under the tanks is essential to the entire Hanford cleanup effort, the expert panel concluded in its December 1996 report.

The panel slammed the reliability of the computer models DOE had used for year to estimate risks to the Columbia and to the public from the tank wastes.

They are “based on arguable, unrealistic and sometimes optimistic assumptions. The output of such models is entirely unreliable and best described by the old axiom: garbage in, garbage out,” the report said.

The soil contamination issue could be a “show-stopper” for a DOE plan to clean out the single-shell tanks by sluicing them with water in the early 21st century, said Ralph Patt, an Oregon hydrologist who was on the review panel and also serves on a regional Hanford advisory board.

“Right now, we don’t know enough about the vadose zone to do a risk assessment,” Patt said.

Last year, Hanford managers sought to minimize Ruud’s and Brodeur’s findings, internal documents show.

Ruud was barred from meetings where other managers decided how to portray the contamination.

DOE’s Richland tank program misled Sen. Glenn’s staff about the cesium plume under the tank farms, Ruud said in a March 1996 memo to DOE.

Ruud’s January 1996 memo to Glenn was edited “without my approval” to say while the cesium was deeper than previously assumed, it is “still 85 feet above the water table.”

“This is not true,” Ruud wrote in his memo. “We do not know if the cesium is 85 feet above the water table or one inch above the water table.”

The borehole was drilled to 130 feet, and the cesium was at the bottom of it. That’s the only conclusion the data supported, Ruud said.

“Not only did we mislead the public, we also mislead Congress,” Ruud complained.

According to a January 1996 draft report, the cesium under a cluster of old, high-heat tanks could be 11 times greater than previously thought.

The volumes range from 56,000 to 111,000 gallons, said Steve Agnew of Los Alamos, who helped prepare the report. The DOE’s previous estimate: 10,000 gallons.

The old tank leak figures are unreliable “guesstimates” that need to be revised upwards, said David Shafer, DOE’s new vadose zone project manager who replaced Ruud six months ago.

DOE’s current estimate of how long it would take for radiation to migrate from the waste areas to the Columbia is 100 years, said DOE spokesman Guy Schein.

DOE had planned to kill the vadose zone program this fall. But in June, that changed.

“Additional data is needed,” said Jackson Kinzer, DOE’s assistant manager for the tank program.

The next battle is over who will continue the job, and for how long.

Ruud says the work is being turned over to many of the same people who tried to minimize the problem in the first place.

Work on the soil contamination by contractor MACTEC-ERS will end a year from September, Shafer said.

Shafer, a geologist, was picked to succeed Ruud because he had more technical expertise, and Ruud was only “on loan” to DOE from Washington state’s nuclear waste cleanup program, Kinzer said.

“You have to credit Casey with making this program visible,” Kinzer said. “But when we got into the technical details, we needed someone with more education.”

Ruud has returned to the state Department of Ecology’s Hanford cleanup program in the Tri-Cities, where he worked before he joined DOE.

He’s assigned to several water quality issues, including the vadose zone, said his supervisor Ron Skinnarland, Ecology’s 200 Area section manager.

DOE plans more work on how far technetium 99, a radioactive element with a 250,000-year half-life, has spread, Shafer said.

It’s been known for some time there’s a limit to how much the vadose zone can act as a barrier to ground water contamination, but DOE needs to know more about the chemistry of the leaks, Shafer said.

Caustic, high-heat fluids in some of the tanks may have burned through the soil, Shafer said.

DOE also plans to do additional drilling this year to see how far the cesium leak in 200 West has spread, Kinzer said.

Much more work is needed, Brodeur said.

“We haven’t taken a comprehensive look. They’ve only looked closely at one cluster of tanks, certain contaminations and certain boreholes.

“The biggest risk is, we get down the road five or 10 years, and we find the contamination in the vadose zone is not stable,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TEMPEST IN A TANK “This affects every project at Hanford. It’s huge, and we do not know enough about it.” Casey Ruud,former DOE safety manager.

The discoveries by Ruud and geophysicist John Brodeur contradict Hanford managers’ earlier assertions that leaking tank wastes never went deep into the soil - and never reached ground water.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TEMPEST IN A TANK “This affects every project at Hanford. It’s huge, and we do not know enough about it.” Casey Ruud,former DOE safety manager.

The discoveries by Ruud and geophysicist John Brodeur contradict Hanford managers’ earlier assertions that leaking tank wastes never went deep into the soil - and never reached ground water.