DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Engineering Disaster: The Waste Leakage at Hanford

Prepared by: Mieng Wah Lourdes Ng , Murat Egin, Alper Donmez, Benjamin Shavitz, Ed Barry


I. Background:

The Hanford nuclear waste treatment site has a very important and historic nuclear background.  The Hanford site started out as a nuclear facility for the Manhattan Project in 1943 (the research and development project led by the U.S. government, with help from the U.K. and Allied Forces, that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II).  When the War Department decided to locate portions of the Manhattan Project in the Hanford part of Washington, it also decided that work to develop atomic weapons had to be done in secret. Subsequently, in early 1943, all of the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford were told to evacuate their homes and abandon their farms, and were given just 30 days and a small amount of money to do so. 

The Hanford Site sits on 586-square-miles of shrub-steppe desert in southeastern Washington State.  It was the primary nuclear production site for Plutonium, the key element in constructing nuclear bombs.  In fact, it was the Hanford Site where the Fat Man, a bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki in World War II, was created.  After World War II, the government greatly increased its production of Plutonium and nuclear arms in response to the growing global threat that was communist Russia in fear of a possible nuclear war.  In 1959, construction began on the last Hanford reactor, dubbed “N”; N Reactor was a dual-purpose facility, which produced Plutonium for atomic weapons as well as steam for generating electricity. It was the only dual-purpose reactor in the United States.  Starting in the mid 60’s through 1971, the older reactors were shut down leaving only the N Reactor operating on the Site.  N Reactor continued its mission of producing Plutonium and electricity until 1987. 

The process of making Plutonium is extremely inefficient in that a massive amount of liquid and solid radioactive waste is generated while only a small amount of Plutonium is produced.  Over the span of the 44 years that the facility was operating, it created a ton of nuclear waste that has been very difficult to maintain and keep isolated.  The Hanford site has had a long history of leaks in its nuclear storage containers.  In 1989, the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Washington State Department of Ecology entered into a legally binding accord, the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA), to clean up the Hanford Site.

II. The Current Problem:

The current problem at the Hanford Site is that 6 out of the 177 storage tanks for nuclear waste are leaking the byproducts of Plutonium production.  These liquid wastes were disposed of, by pouring them onto the ground, into trenches or holding ponds.  Unintentional spills of liquids also took place.  Liquid wastes generated during the process of extracting Plutonium from the Uranium “fuel rods” were put into underground storage tanks.  Though they are as perceived as simply leaking into the ground, which would be harmless, that is far from the truth.  This radioactive waste forms downward facing streams over time called plumes; these plumes keep growing and in the future if not stopped will reach ground water that is directly connected to the Columbia River.  This poses the threat of radioactive materials getting into the water supply for much of Washington and Oregon and causing many health problems for civilians.  The radioactive waste causes many health problems including various cancers, central nervous system problems, birth defects in newborns, and blood and bone marrow diseases14(McMahon). 

III. Causes of the Hanford Failure:

The causes of the nuclear leakage incident at Hanford, of which there are several, fall under four of the five primary categories of causes of engineering failure. They are distributed among the categories of materials failure, poor design, human factors, and failure in operation, maintenance, and organization.

Before this discussion of the applicable categories commences, the inapplicable one (i.e., extreme conditions) should be mentioned. Extreme conditions did not play a significant role in causing the leakage at Hanford. The waste tanks were pushed to their limits primarily by the progression of time, rather than by a powerful external force such as a storm or earthquake. Thus, the Hanford failure is a testament to the fact that disasters can occur under normal circumstances, provided sufficient measures are not enacted to prevent them. The lack of sufficient preventative measures in the case of the Hanford leaks will be covered in the following discussion of the applicable categories and the causes of failure.

Category 1: Materials Failure:

The Hanford disaster itself is essentially a materials failure. The disaster is that the waste tanks are leaking; and the leaking of the waste tanks immediately derives from a failure of the tanks’ materials to restrain the nuclear waste the tanks are supposed to be containing. Thus, the materials failure is the most immediate cause of the Hanford disaster. It is so immediate that it effectively is the disaster. And since claiming that a disaster was the primary cause of its own occurrence (i.e., that it happened mainly because it happened) makes for a fairly circular explanation of that disaster’s causality, it stands to reason that the materials failure that contributed to and is the Hanford disaster cannot logically be considered that disaster’s primary cause. In other words, while the materials failure that is the inability of the materials of the tanks to contain the nuclear waste is the most immediate cause of the Hanford disaster, it cannot be considered the cause that is most fundamentally responsible for it.

Category 2: Poor Design:

A key factor that contributed to some of the most significant causes of the Hanford nuclear leak was the age of the facility. The Hanford site was constructed during World War II, which means that its oldest waste tanks are around 70 years old. Since the tanks were built so long ago, they were not designed to meet modern standards. Most (149 out of 177) of the nuclear waste storage tanks at the Hanford site are single-shell tanks, which means that they were not built with an extra hull around the inner one to arrest waste in the event of a leak 2(Learn).The major flaw in the design of these single-shell tanks is a lack of redundancy – they do not possess a backup shell, so once they begin to leak, nuclear material immediately enters the ground. There is no grace period during which the waste can be removed from the tank before it reaches the surrounding soil and into the environment. In comparison to the double-shelled tanks (that are also used in the Hanford site, which are also leaking) provides sufficient time to safety dispose or transfer the radioactive waste. Thus, poor design contributed to the Hanford disaster, but not, as shall be demonstrated momentarily, to as great an extent as human factors and poor operation, maintenance, and organization.

Categories 3 & 4: Human Factors & Failures in Operation, Maintenance, and Organization:

            The categories of human factors and failures in operation, maintenance, and organization are very closely related and often overlap. Failures in operation, maintenance, and organization all result from faulty choices or lapses in judgment on the parts of the people operating the site. They are essentially human factors and will be addressed in conjunction with them. For efficiency and terminological simplicity, the combination of categories 3 and 4 will be referred to as the “misconduct” category for the remainder of this section.

            There are a couple of really significant examples of misconduct at the Hanford Nuclear Site. The first is the fact that the Department of Energy’s (DOE) contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, which was responsible for analyzing the levels of the waste in the tanks, only analyzed the waste levels over annual periods, rather than over periods of multiple years1 ("Hanford Overview and History "). Examining the changes in the levels of material in the tanks over such small intervals inhibited the contractor’s ability to notice their existence since the annual changes were quite small compared to the capacities of the tanks2 (Learn). If Washington River Protection Solutions had analyzed data from longer periods of time, it would have been easier for them to detect the decreases in the tank levels that the leaking is and was causing. The leaks could have been observed sooner had the contractor studied larger swaths of data.

            The second example of misconduct, and most likely the primary cause of the Hanford disaster, is the overuse of the waste storage tanks. The oldest single-shell tanks, when built in the 1940s, were expected to last ten to twenty years, but are still being used to hold nuclear waste today 3("The Columbia River at Risk"). They have been in use for more than three times as long as they were expected to last. It is little wonder that their integrity has been compromised. These old tanks should have been replaced many years ago. But they were not. This is egregiously poor maintenance. The Hanford tanks are far too old and have not been replaced. Thus, it should be clear that misconduct, and poor maintenance in particular, is the primary reason for the occurrence of the waste leakage at the Hanford nuclear site.

IV. Risk Analysis:

The following is a qualitative analysis of the risk of failure of the tanks at the Hanford nuclear site based on the risk formula below. Each element of the formula will be discussed in the context of the Hanford failure. The discussions will focus primarily on how the formula elements changed over time, since examining these changes in conjunction with the risk formula reveals a clear trend, based on which one can conclude that the leaking of the tanks should not be cause for surprise.

Risk Formula:



            The vulnerability of the waste storage tanks to fail increases over time. As the tanks aged, the integrity and the ability of its material to restrain their contents diminished. Consequently, they became more and more vulnerable to leakage as time passed.

Probability of Occurrence:

            The probability of tank leakage occurring also increased over time. The older the tanks become, the more likely failure would occur. In addition, the fact that the waste material was added to the tanks throughout the Cold War increased the probability of leaks forming. The more material there was in the tanks, the more material there was to leak out and the more likely it was that some of it would.


            Just as the other numerator elements of the risk equation (vulnerability and probability of occurrence) increased over time, so did the cost of the formation of leaks in the waste tanks. As the quantity of nuclear material in the site grew, the amount of such material that could drain into the soil in the event of a leak is increased. And the more waste there was that could drain into the ground, the more damage the environment would suffer if the storage tanks leaked it out.


            The efforts made over time to mitigate the risk of the tanks leaking were insignificant compared to the three increasing factors discussed above. While measures were taken to decrease the risk of leakage (e.g., the waste was mixed with sodium hydroxide to reduce its acidity and corrosiveness before it was pumped into the storage tanks) and new double-shell tanks were built that now hold some of the waste that was originally in the old ones, the fact remains that the old tanks were never completely taken out of use 3("The Columbia River at Risk"). Ceasing the utilization of the old tanks that had been in use far beyond their intended lifespan would have been the only way to significantly reduce the risk of leaks happening. The tanks were (and are) too old and nothing short of replacing them would have been (or will be) of any great consequence in an attempt to mitigate the risk of tank failure.


Based on the risk formula and the facts that all three of the elements in its numerator (vulnerability, probability of occurrence, and cost) increased over time and that the element in its denominator (mitigation) were not significant relative to the numerator elements, it should be clear that the overall risk of the tanks failing increased over time. It has been roughly seventy years and the risk has been growing. It is little wonder that leaks were discovered recently, and it would not be particularly surprising if more were found in the future.

V. Psychological and Societal Impacts:

In addition to having physical effects, the disaster at Hanford will have many psychological effects on the citizens of Washington State. Although no one has died directly as a result of this disaster, the unseen effects are sometimes the worst. Even before this disaster, people’s perception of the risk of nuclear related disasters has already increased because of recent disasters such as the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Failure, even though the actual risk from the Hanford plant had always been in existence.  Because of this mentality concerning the dangers of nuclear waste people’s top priority is having the government remove the radioactive remains. This plant had previously leaked before, however people have only started to worry about it recently, because their risk perception increased. The main psychological effect of this disaster is that it causes stress. Stress, defined as an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures, will become a daily part of life for hundreds of thousands of people in the Washington State11("Stress").

            This disaster will cause stress because it produces a big uncertainty in people’s lives. The ambiguity of the disaster and the effect it will have on the environment makes people begin to question their own health and safety in their current location.  If people relocate to another location there will not only be the uncertainty of their health, but also in their future. Relocation from their area will be a major source of stress, since their current establishments, homes and lives will have to be completely uprooted. An example of a nuclear related disaster where people had to relocate is the Chernobyl disaster10. This disaster happened because a buildup of pressure caused by hot fuel touching the cooling water, caused the destruction of the reactor. When the reactor was destroyed, tons of nuclear waste were released into the environment, because of the immediate danger to the area surrounding the plant the town of Pripyat was evacuated. To this day the population of Pripyat is significantly lower than it was before. The people in the town of Pripyat underwent a great deal of stress since their future had suddenly become full of uncertainties and doubts10 ("Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions"). The people in Hanford haven’t experienced this kind of stress yet, as the threat is still in the imminent future, however the Chernobyl disaster shows how peoples lives can be affected greatly by such a nuclear disaster.

            This stress can also impact people’s health. It can lead to distress, which can lead to headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pains and problems sleeping11("Stress").Also, the stress can leave people vulnerable to diseases, since it has a negative effect on the bodies’ immune system. Stress can also lead to severe depression and anxiety throughout the local population12 ("The Effects of Stress on Your Body").  All of these individual negative effects will buildup and become a larger problem in the community.

            This disaster also caused doubt and weariness in the local population because the people in Hanford feel like nothing is being done to help them. The cleanup plans, which involved building a plant, are billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. Also, the integrity of the contracting company Bechtel National Inc. is being questioned, because there were illegitimate charges and circumvented protocols in building the new plant that caused more problems and delays4(Johnson). Furthermore, due to budget cuts, other cleanup plans that uses bio-stimulation and Vitrification, the newest technology and hence costly procedures, are also delayed. All of these delays make the public question why the Hanford disaster has progressed to this magnitude without detection.

            The Hanford disaster has many psychological effects, however it also has a tremendous societal impact. The society and community near Hanford will take many years to recover. One major fear of the Hanford site, is that the nuclear waste will leak into the groundwater and Columbia river, not only threatening the population, but also the local wildlife. If this happens, the entire community will have to relocate, and this will cause large amounts of stress as described above.

            This disaster impacts society because it will cause adverse effects on the local businesses and corporations. These businesses and corporations will end up hemorrhaging money. The society will never be the same as it previously was.   In addition because Hanford is now a prominent failure, the media coverage of the disaster increased dramatically. The citizens of the town are being swarmed by the media, which increases the stress and tension in the local population. The town will also have a bad reputation because of this disaster, thus leading to more problems in its future.

VI. Impacts on Business, Media, and Legal Aspects:

            As stated previously, the Hanford site has been constructed from the World War II era and throughout the years the site has had multiple fires and leaks5(Wald). However the media coverage on the dangers of the site had never been prominent. The publics’ lack of knowledge on nuclear waste at the time and the extremely secretive effort to clean up the nuclear waste kept the media spotlight off the imminent disaster. However due to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and the newly discovered leakage of the 6 single shelled tanks brought the media’s attention back onto the looming danger to the nearby community6 (Johnson). There are more watch groups and the DOE itself had been releasing status reports to the public in efforts of increasing awareness of the improvements on the clean up process. The Hanford nuclear waste clean up is now recognized as one of the largest environmental clean up efforts in history.

            With the increased efforts to clean up the nuclear waste in Hanford, the government has allotted the DOE (Department of Energy) an average annual budget of two billion dollars to the cause. This has encouraged the economy and also allows contracted companies such as Bechtel National Inc., Advanced Technologies and Laboratories International, Inc. (ATL) to clean up the site before the waste reaches the Columbia River. Along with the big corporations the DOE has recently implemented the “Small Business Administration” which would require 7% of the annual budget to be allotted to small independently own companies7(Cary). However due to the current recession in United Sates, the sequestration of 2013 reduced the original budget of three billion back to two billion for 2014. This set back would further strain the plans for the new plant and the clean up efforts, as it is already a tight race against time.

            The newfound media attention to the Hanford leakage disaster has taken vast strides to repairing the damage done by years of neglect. Currently, a civil court case against one of Hanford’s previous contractors, CH2M has been settled, fining the company 18.5 million dollars for fraud as they were billing the government for forged timesheets8("CH2M Hill Hanford Group Inc. Admits Criminal Conduct, Parent Company Agrees to Cooperate in Ongoing Investigation and Pay $18.5 Million to Resolve Civil and Criminal Allegations"). The company was in charge of monitoring and cleaning up the waste from 1999-2008 and was not held accountable for their part in letting the disaster magnify to this proportion until the media began to raise questions and investigations were held. 

VII. Engineering Impact and Improvements:

            The situation at Hanford has had very wide-reaching effects into many fields in the country.  Of course, one major area it has affected is the field of engineering, as this failure occurred because of engineering errors. Within the field of engineering, this disaster has had several different effects.  First, it has impacted the engineers in charge of handling the waste storage site and brought attention to the treatment of nuclear waste in the United States.  Second, it has created a need for new technologies and techniques for safely containing and disposing of the chemical leakage.  In addition, it has brought to light the various issues with engineering ethics present in the country.  Finally, it has impacted the people's view of nuclear power, which is an issue the country has been divided on.

            For decades now the Hanford site has been used to store our nuclear waste, which is a much longer period than was intended for, when it was first built.  This illustrates the incredible lack of funding that programs and facilities such as this receive, as a newer and more modern site should have been constructed by now.  In addition to this, there has not even been enough funding to keep the old facilities working properly.  Even now after the leakage has occurred, recovery efforts have been sluggish.  Hopefully this disaster will show the country how important funding for this is and will be promoted more in the future.

            Now that the leakage has happened, engineers from around the country are working together to develop new and improved methods of eliminating this waste in a quick and safe manner.  Several techniques have been employed, some newly developed and some used in the past.  These include bio-stimulation, barriers, the  “Pump and Treat” method, and Vitrification.

            Barriers are the most direct method to stopping the radioactive waste from traveling further than its already contaminated site9("Hanford Cleanup"). These barriers are resistant to the radioactive chemicals, hence they are a viable temporary solution since the contamination is really close to the Columbia River. If hazardous material were to be introduced to such a large body of water, incredible amounts of damage would occur.  Both the wildlife along the river as well as any people who get their water supply from the river would be devastated. However this method only temporarily holds off the pollution it does not effectively eliminate the threat.

            Bio-stimulation involves the modification of the environment to stimulate existing bacteria capable of bioremediation.  Bioremediation is the usage of micro-organism metabolism to remove pollutants, such as the nuclear waste in this situation.  When enough bacteria are introduced to the environment, the harmful chemicals begin to decompose, leaving behind less dangerous and easier to remove materials. Hence the use of bio-stimulation is the most effective method to clean up the nuclear waste that had escaped out of the Hanford site. However this new procedure would be more costly and time consuming, which would make this method not the best approach since time is the important factor. The cleanup is under a strained time constraint to avoid a greater disaster, the nuclear waste reaching the Columbia River.

The currently preferred approach is the “Pump and Treat” method. This consists of pumping the toxic sludge from the ground up. The waste is then filtered (“treated”) with chemical compounds to render the waste safe and harmless. The remaining material is then put back into the ground. This approach takes immediate action and is the best option to clean up the nuclear waste in time.

As for the rest of the radioactive waste still stored in the tanks, a new technique that is now being utilized called Vitrification is in plans to effectively store and stabilize the waste products9("Hanford Cleanup").  Long-term storage of radioactive waste requires the stabilization of the waste into a form, which will neither react nor degrade for extended periods of time. One way to do this is through Vitrification.  Vitrification is the transformation of a substance into a glass.  First, the leakage is mixed with various glass-forming chemicals in a heated smelter.  This mixture is then slowly cooled, leaving behind a solid piece of glass.  In glass form, the radioactive chemicals are both no longer harmful as well as immobile.  This is a serious possibility for a long-term solution to the nuclear waste problem that we have in the United States.  For the Hanford Site, plans to construct a state of the art facility for Vitrification are in place. The rest of the nuclear waste in the storage tanks would be pumped out and send through the plant to first separate water from nuclear waste. It is then tested for levels of radioactivity and the high levels would be sent through the process of Vitrification.


VIII. Ethics:

Such a large engineering failure calls into question the engineering ethics associated with the planning and maintenance surrounding the Hanford site.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the first fundamental canon of engineering ethics is as follows: “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties”13 ("Code of Ethics"). In this situation however, the health and safety of the public was clearly not held paramount.  By many accounts, leakage was found to be occurring in one of the tanks over a year ago, but it was ignored and considered to be a malfunction of the devices used to measure the leakage.  This may have been done in part due to lack of funding.  Such a tight budget would encourage engineers to push off such lengthy and expensive reparations.  However, in the end it has caused more damage and presented a clear danger to the public.

Such a major failure related to nuclear power has served only to further the American public's resentment toward nuclear power.  This potential new source of energy, which has been considered as a possible replacement for fossil fuels, has had major struggles in the public eye due to various issues, especially the storage of the nuclear wasted generated during the process of nuclear fission.  This disaster will only hinder the progress of this growing field.

The nuclear waste leakage in Hanford is a disaster caused primarily by the neglect and abuse of materials. The leakage and cleanup would not have rendered itself to such dramatic proportions if the proper checkups were conducted. The imminent danger that the nearby community of Hanford now face great ambiguity as to whether the clean up can be conducted in time and if not the extent the damage can do to their lives. Engineering disasters affect many lives, however for each disaster the silver lining can only be viewed as in hopes that the future can learn from past mistakes. 





Works Cited :

1 "Hanford Overview and History ." Hanford.gov. Department of Energy , 0  December 2012. Web. 7 May 2013. <http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordOverviewandHistory>.

2Learn, Scott. "More storage tanks could be leaking at Hanford nuclear reservation." Oregon Live. Oregon Live, 05 Mar 2013. Web. 7 May 2013. <http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2013/03/more_tanks_could_be_leaking_at.html>.

3"The Columbia River at Risk." Oregon.gov. Oregon Department of Energy , 01 July 2006. Web. 5 May 2013. <http://www.oregon.gov/energy/NUCSAF/docs/WhitePaperRev.pdf>.

4 Johnson, Kirk. "Looming Budget Cuts Add to Problems at Nuclear Site." Nytimes.com. New York Times Newspaper, 07 March 2013. Web. 13 May 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/us/struggling-hanford-site-awaits-new-cuts.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&>.

5Wald, Mathhew. "Secrecy Tied to Hanford Tanks Trouble." Nytimes.com. New York Times Newspaper, 01 Aug 1990. Web. 2 May 2013. <5http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/01/us/secrecy-tied-to-hanford-tanks-trouble.html?pagewanted=2&src=pm>.

6 Johnson , Kirk. "Underground Nuclear Tanks Leaking in Washington State." Nytimes.com. New York Times Newspaper, 22 Feb 2013. Web. 10 May 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/us/underground-nuclear-tanks-leaking-in-washington-state.html?_r=0>.

7 Cary, Annette. "DOE starting to implement small business requirement at Hanford Read more here: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2013/04/18/2362718/doe-starting-to-implement-small.html

8 "CH2M Hill Hanford Group Inc. Admits Criminal Conduct, Parent Company Agrees to Cooperate in Ongoing Investigation and Pay $18.5 Million to Resolve Civil and Criminal Allegations."Justice.gov. The United States Department of Justice, 7 Mar 2013. Web. 9 May 2013. <http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2013/March/13-civ-275.html>.

"Hanford Cleanup." Hanford.gov. Hanford Department of Energy , 9 Nov 2012. Web. 3 May 2013. <http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordCleanup>.

10 "Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions." IAEA.org. International Atomic Energy Agency. Web. 10 May 2013. <http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/features/chernobyl-15/cherno-faq.shtml>.

11"Stress." Medical Dictionary . The Free Dictionary . Web. 1 May 2013. <http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/stress>.

12 "The Effects of Stress on Your Body." Web MD. Web MD, 23 Jul 2012. Web. 3 May 2013. <http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/effects-of-stress-on-your-body>.

13 "Code of Ethics." American Society of Civil Engineers. American Society of Civil Engineers. Web. 5 May 2013. <http://www.asce.org/Leadership-and-Management/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/>.

14 McMahon, Jeff. "What's Inside The Suspect Nuclear Waste Tank (AY-102) At Hanford?." Forbes Magazine. Forbes Magazine, 27 Aug 2012. Web. 10 May 2013. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2012/08/27/whats-inside-the-suspect-nuclear-waste-tank-at-hanford/>.



DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.