25 May 2017

Time to end the decay at the Energy Department

Jeff Terry

Jeff Terry

Jeff Terry is a professor of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where his main research focus is on energy systems. His group works to develop new ways of dealing with radioactive...


On May 9, a tunnel housing nuclear waste collapsed at the PUREX plant on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state. Fortunately, no radioactivity was released to the public—but the incident clearly demonstrates the problems associated with letting both waste tunnels and old plants like the PUREX facility itself sit vacant for decades. Unfortunately, decay similar to that at the PUREX plant is not unusual at Energy Department facilities. Many facilities are in dire need of repair or replacement.

The department’s practice of deferring maintenance on its facilities is widespread. Worse, “deferred maintenance” doesn’t mean that the department delays only the repairs required to keep a facility in pristine condition; rather, repairs needed to maintain facilities in acceptable condition are delayed. When facilities drop below acceptable standards, it’s easy to see how bad situations can arise.

After the tunnel collapse at Hanford, it should be clear that decontamination and demolition work needs to go forward—that many of the department’s obsolete facilities need to be removed. But I expect that not enough funds will be available to perform this work as quickly as it should be carried out. Meanwhile, diverting significant funds from the department’s “active” mission to perform legacy waste clean-up is not easy to do. The public, however, would prefer not to hear of any more surprise collapses of radioactive tunnels, so diversion may be necessary.

Douglas fir. “PUREX” stands for Plutonium Uranium Redox Extraction, a process developed during the Manhattan Project to facilitate the extraction of plutonium from spent fuel for nuclear weapons production. Hanford’s PUREX plant operated between 1956 and 1988. It is currently vacant and is scheduled for decontamination and demolition. Over its decades of operation, the PUREX plant produced a significant quantity of contaminated material and equipment while processing approximately 70,000 tons of spent fuel. Some of this waste was stored in two railroad tunnels built adjacent to the PUREX plant.

The State of Washington’s Department of Ecology makes available to the public the Dangerous Waste Permit Application for the PUREX tunnels. According to the permit application, the tunnels hold mixed waste. Mixed waste contains both radioactive materials and waste regulated under the 1975 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Materials regulated under the act and present in the tunnels include barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, and a potentially ignitable form of silver.

Tunnel 1—the tunnel that collapsed—was built in 1956. By 1965, eight rail cars storing mixed waste were placed in the tunnel, which was then sealed. The figure atop this column shows a diagram of the tunnel, which was built mainly with posts and timbers of Douglas fir (though a portion of a wall was concreted). The problem, of course, is that wood construction materials do not last forever—and the materials supporting the tunnel have been around longer than I have walked the planet. I do hope that the Energy Department will release a record of past inspections for the PUREX tunnels. This would allow independent researchers to judge how signs of the impending collapse had been missed. More importantly, outside experts could offer suggestions on how to catch potential events in advance.

Increasing and unpredictable. In September 2016, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Lt. Gen Frank G. Klotz, was called by a House subcommittee on strategic forces to address deferred maintenance. (The NNSA is a unit of the Energy Department.) He testified that:

Our infrastructure is extensive, complex, and, in many critical areas, several decades old. More than half of NNSA’s approximately 6,000 real property assets are over 40 years old, and nearly 30 percent date back to the Manhattan Project era. Many of the enterprise’s critical utility, safety, and support systems are failing at an increasing and unpredictable rate, which poses both programmatic and safety risk.

The last thing anyone wants to see is Energy Department facilities “failing at an increasing and unpredictable rate.” Such a situation poses potential safety consequences, mainly to on-site workers, but in some cases to the public as well. This is unacceptable. As Ivan Graff of the department’s Office of Asset Management pointed out in a May 2015 presentation, deferred maintenance is a problem that extends beyond the NNSA and affects the majority of the Energy Department complex. Graff reported deferred maintenance of $5.35 billion for fiscal year 2014, split mainly among the NNSA and the department’s offices of environmental management, science, and nuclear energy. Given the scale of the deferred maintenance and the current administration’s focus on budget cutting, I don’t expect to see a big enough bump in the department’s budget to address deferred maintenance adequately in the near future.

As Graff notes, it is important to address maintenance deficiencies for at least two reasons:

  • To sustain the [department’s] mission
  • Deferred maintenance makes [the department] look irresponsible

He is clearly correct in this regard. The department must protect the public from the legacy nuclear waste of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. And the department does appear irresponsible when tunnels full of waste are allowed to decay to the point of collapse. So what can be done?

Obviously, deferred maintenance stops being an issue when decaying structures no longer exist. This is no secret—and the department has removed obsolete structures in many places. In September, 2015, William E. Murphie of the department’s Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office gave a presentation on the department’s approach to deferred maintenance at its Portsmouth and Paducah sites. He reported that decontamination and demolition work is the most cost-effective option to solve problems related to deferred maintenance. Decontamination and demolition eliminate the risk of radiological release from decaying buildings. Removed facilities no longer require monitoring or security, which reduces costs.

It is clear that at least some of the work performed from the 1940s to the 1960s was designed to be temporary (for example, the wooden tunnel supports in Hanford’s Tunnel 1). The department needs to act to remove many of the temporary fixes that have now lasted for decades. It also must remove obsolete sites that are known to be contaminated or, worse, leaking radioactivity.

Given that the department’s budget is not likely to expand to deal with these issues, a number of tough choices will have to be made. Which sites need to be dealt with first? Where will the contaminated materials be disposed of permanently? Clearly the legacy waste at Hanford must be a priority, given the volume of material stored there and its proximity to the Columbia River. The chemistry and metallurgy research building at Los Alamos was obsolete decades ago and has long been scheduled for replacement. The underground tanks at the Savannah River site should also be a priority for decontamination and demolition. Work should continue at Portsmouth and Paducah. This work will not be cheap or easy to accomplish.

It is easy to argue that, with deferred maintenance levels of $5.35 billion in fiscal year 2014, the budget is insufficient for the department to run all the facilities for which it is responsible. If deferred maintenance were forbidden, would the country be willing to spend the money necessary to keep all the department’s facilities in acceptable condition—or would some facilities have to close? Energy Secretary Rick Perry should fight to increase his budget to the point that standard maintenance is no longer deferred. If this isn’t possible, Perry needs to explore shutting down a number of facilities or even laboratory sites to end the practice of deferring maintenance within the Energy Department complex. I appreciate Perry’s recognition (see the tweet above) that there are many “dedicated, talented experts on the ground” at department sites. Wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t have to work in facilities with leaking roofs and with the potential for contamination from nearby sites that should have been demolished decades ago?

We have a responsibility to protect both site workers and the public from the dangers of decades of delayed maintenance at department facilities. The question, as always, is whether money will be allocated to address deficiencies. I don’t expect past practices to change much.