RICHLAND, Benton County — In May 2019, workers at the Perma-Fix Northwest plant pulled a hunk of radioactive waste from a powerful kiln heated to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough to ensconce the material in glass for eventual burial.

The workers let it cool — but not long enough — before setting it on a pallet. The residual heat caused the wood to burn. A crew from the plant sprayed chemicals on the fire before Richland firefighters arrived to finish that job.

A Washington Department of Ecology inspector in a report noted that a fire alarm system was not operating that month and that the incident “could have been catastrophic.”

This was one of two fires at Perma-Fix in 2019 that were not publicly disclosed by the company or state regulators. It offers an unsettling example of how things can go wrong at the private facility that treats radioactive and hazardous materials trucked in from Hanford, the highly polluted federal site which produced plutonium for nuclear bombs, as well as waste from elsewhere in the U.S. and other countries.

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Perma-Fix has thrived as a low-cost operator that, by virtue of its location just outside the federal Hanford site, is able to operate without labor unions and beyond federal oversight of the Department of Energy and the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which publishes weekly inspection reports.

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In the years ahead, officials with Atlanta-based Perma-Fix are angling for their company to take part in Hanford’s toughest remaining cleanup — stabilizing highly toxic wastes in 177 aging Hanford tanks left over from plutonium production.

A new investigative report released exclusively to The Seattle Times by the nonprofit watchdog group Hanford Challenge documents the fires as well as other mishaps and compliance problems that the authors say “calls into question” the safety of sending Hanford’s wastes to Perma-Fix.

“This is work that Hanford workers have done well in the past and should be doing now. Hanford has the built-in capacity to handle this waste and to handle it in a safer, more transparent and more accountable manner,” wrote authors Robert Alvarez, once a top Energy Department official in the Clinton administration, and Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge’s executive director.

Much of the report is based on thousands of pages of documents obtained under Washington state’s Public Disclosure Act from the state Department of Health, which licenses facilities to possess radioactive materials and monitors emissions, and the state Department of Ecology, which regulates Perma-Fix operations involving hazardous materials.

The records show problems with how the waste has, on occasion, been stored, handled and labeled and how at times the emissions have been monitored. Perma-Fix’s compliance problems resulted in more than $550,000 in state and federal fines in eleven years.

The new report documents two incidents when workers were significantly overexposed to radiation. In 2006, when the facility was operated by a different owner, three workers received emergency chemical treatment after inhaling Americium 241 at levels above the regulatory limits. One of them was found to be at more than eight times the threshold. In 2009, two years after Perma-Fix took over, a worker received an internal dose well above the regulatory limit.

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Richard Grondin, executive vice president of Perma-Fix, says no worker has been overexposed since 2009. He said the company has an excellent safety record of processing Hanford wastes and resolving compliance problems to the satisfaction of regulators.

He disputes the Ecology Department inspector’s assessment of the May 2019 fire, which he said did not result in any radioactive release.

“We don’t claim to be perfect, but when regulators find some something we don’t do right, we will correct it,” Grondin said. “ … Any fires are of serious concern, but to call it potentially catastrophic is a matter of interpretation and very subjective.”

One supporter of Perma-Fix doing the work is state Rep. Gerry Pollet, a Seattle Democrat who heads the nonprofit Heart of America Northwest, which advocates for Hanford cleanup. He credits Perma-Fix with a “sea change” in management after it took over the complex in 2007.

Hanford’s safety record, and federal oversight, have proven weak at times, Pollet said, and he is satisfied that Perma-Fix is sufficiently regulated, even though he characterized the state Health Department as having “a history of incredibly lax oversight.”

The Hanford Challenge report takes aim at the state Health Department’s regulation of the amounts of radioactive isotopes processed at the Richland facility. During a six-year period ending in 2019, Perma-Fix handled enough plutonium 239 to produce two atomic bombs, according to Alvarez.

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“We hope this report is a wake-up call for the Washington Department of Health,” Carpenter said. “Hopefully, getting this all out in the open will result in better protections for the surrounding communities and safer treatment of Hanford’s waste.”

The report says the plutonium 239 at the Perma-Fix plant — about a mile from a child care center — poses a special risk because, if inhaled in small quantities, it can lead to cancer. If 1% of that material became airborne, the doses at the edge of the Richland property would exceed by 1,000 times those permitted at Energy Department waste disposal sites, he said.

To date, state health officials say Perma-Fix has been well within permit limits, with no indication of any airborne releases that would threaten public health.

“We get requests from the EPA about whether we think the facility is safely managing their radioactivity material. We say, ‘Yes,’” said Kristen Schwab, a state health inspector.

For Perma-Fix, more waste means more money. In 2019, the company’s annual revenue grew by almost half, to $74 million. More than 80% of it came from processing waste for the government, part of an expansion strategy.

A toxic legacy

The main Perma-Fix site is carved out of sagebrush-dotted lands in Richland’s north, and is surrounded by barbed-wire fencing posted with yellow signs warning of a “radioactive material area.”

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The original owner was drawn to this real estate by the proximity to Hanford, which was a decade into the marathon cleanup when the facility began operating in 1998.

Today, some 75 workers suited in various degrees of protective gear unpack and treat wastes that will then be shipped elsewhere for longer storage.

The Hanford waste is a key underpinning of the Perma-Fix’s business in Richland, which could expand substantially if Hanford tank wastes become part of the mix handled at its Richland facility.

Perma-Fix’s prospective role in the tank waste treatment is part of a possible new approach to a yearslong federal effort to stabilize for long-term storage the toxic gruel of 56 million gallons — in the 177 aging tanks — of chemical and nuclear leftovers from plutonium production. About a third are leaking, and pose a grave pollution threat.

The current treatment plan developed by the Energy Department and contractors — a facility on the Hanford site that would encase the waste in glass — is massive in scale and complexity. It would take decades to complete, and one federal forecast estimated the costs to be a staggering $320 billion or more.

The Energy Department has sought quicker, cheaper ways to stabilize some of these liquid wastes by removing cesium and other chemicals and sending them to Perma-Fix to be stabilized.

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In 2017, a tiny 3-gallon sample of this liquid waste was stabilized with grout at the Perma-Fix facility in Richland. The Energy Department termed this demonstration a success, and the Government Accountability Office has cited experts saying the grouting could save $16.5 billion.

Perma-Fix was supposed to receive 2,000 gallons of tank wastes, then up to 500,000 gallons if all went well.

But the future of this work is uncertain.

In the spring of 2019, the Trump administration’s Energy Department withdrew the proposal, citing the Washington state Ecology Department’s call for more negotiations.

Ecology Department officials say they are not opposed to the work at Perma-Fix. But they have asked for a full public outreach effort about the proposal that ensures “open and transparent decision-making,” according to an April 2019 letter that the Ecology Department’s John Price sent to a federal official.

More Hanford waste

When the Richland facility first opened in 1998, the original permit was issued under an assumption that no more than 25% of the radioactive waste would come from Hanford or other federal Energy Department nuclear facilities.

Today, even without tank wastes, the Hanford cleanup provides about 65% of the materials handled at the Perma-Fix operation in Richland, according to Grondin.

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One section of the complex deals only with low-level radioactive wastes, which are many times compacted or cut up and repacked as tightly as possible. During one recent shift, in a negative-pressure room meant to prevent radioactive contamination from escaping, workers clad in white Tyvek suits and respirators stuffed small pieces of drywall into containers.

In another section, workers handled a complicated mix of hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials. None of this waste is incinerated, and the stabilization work last year involved testing of a heating process, known as vitrification, that encases materials in a glasslike substance.

The vitrification of one of those shipments — the leftovers from a decades-old nuclear accident at a Midwest power plant — set the stage for the May 2019 fire.

“Monolith” fire

 In 1966, a nuclear power plant in Newport, Michigan, suffered a partial meltdown, generating barrels of contaminated coolants that ended up at a federal site in Idaho. They were stored there for years before being shipped to Perma-Fix’s Richland complex last year.

There, they were processed through a kiln system called GeoMelt, designed to mix waste with other materials to create a stable glass for long-term storage.

The hunks that come out of the GeoMelt unit are called “monoliths,” and were being produced at Perma-Fix under a demonstration permit approved by the state Department of Ecology, before they are packaged and shipped to landfills for disposal.

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One of them was put on a pallet on May 17, 2019, igniting the fire. Firefighters who arrived wanted to douse the blaze with water, but workers were unsure about the consequences.

“Initially no one could confirm if water would be reactive with the product,” Richland Fire battalion chief Michael Wroolie wrote in a report.

At the instruction of firefighters, Perma-Fix employees picked up the smoldering, charred log with a forklift and brought it outside, where firefighters doused it with some 20 gallons of water.

There were no reports of any release of radioactivity into the air or of worker exposure, but the unscripted approach meant that the waste was carried out of the negative pressure environment.

The state Ecology Department inspector, in his report, also noted other concerns, including the lack of a functioning fire alarm system, which was supposed to be inspected hourly but that hadn’t been done on the graveyard shift when the fire started. The fire was discovered when an employee smelled smoke, then peered into the room through cameras.

The inspector had other concerns, noting records that indicated the GeoMelt treatment sometimes was not meeting the safety standards for long-term disposal of the waste.

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At the end of 2019, the test runs of the GeoMelt system were put on hold. They will need approval from the Ecology Department to operate again.

A pivotal year

The next year could be pivotal for the future of the Perma-Fix operation in Richland.

There is plenty of support for reviving the plan to treat some tank wastes at Perma-Fix, as the incoming Biden administration installs new leadership at the federal Energy Department. Washington’s congressional delegation and state leaders have repeatedly pushed for a long-term solution to Hanford’s toxic legacy.

Those hoping to see tank wastes flow to Perma-Fix include Pollet, who has received $3,550 in campaign donations from Perma-Fix and its out-of-state executives since his first campaign for office in 2008. He says those contributions haven’t kept him from holding Perma-Fix accountable, and he thinks the swiftest path to ridding Hanford of tank wastes includes the company.

Grondin, the Perma-Fix executive vice president, is hoping he’s right.

“We are ready — if they want to do it,” Grondin said.