Last week, Washington state officials announced that one of the 177 underground storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the state’s south-central region is leaking radioactive nuclear waste at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons per year, threatening the water table and nearby Columbia River. Further inspections, however, reveal the problem to be much worse.
In meetings Friday, Washington governor Jay Inslee learned that six of the tanks containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive sludge were found to be leaking. Combined, the tanks contain some 53 million gallons of nuclear waste, a byproduct of the federal government’s plutonium enrichment operations in World War II and the subsequent decades of the Cold War.
“We received very disturbing news today,” the governor told federal officials in Washington last week. “I think that we are going to have a course of new action and that will be vigorously pursued in the next several weeks.”
Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site. Most of the storage tanks there were built in the 1940s and were designed to last about 20 years. Now, faced with their increasing failure, the federal government anticipates a long and costly cleanup of the site before the leaking waste enters the water table and Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest.
Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who serves as the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman, will press the Government Accountability Office to investigate the nuclear site’s monitoring and maintenance programs, a spokesman for the Senator said.
Some of the tanks were “stabilized” in the mid-1990s and again in 2005, but apparently those efforts were either very short-term solutions or they failed to work altogether.
Cleanup and containment at Hanford is a complicated endeavor that will cost the federal government billions on top of what is has already spent on the site.
Each year, the U.S. spends $2 billion cleaning up the Hanford site, which accounts for one-third of its entire nuclear cleanup budget nationwide. The cleanup also will likely take decades to complete. Construction of a plant to convert the radioactive sludge into solid glass-like logs is beset with budget and time problems. The operation has already cost billions of dollars more than its original $12.3 billion price tag and isn’t expected to be operational until 2019 at the earliest.
“None of these tanks would be acceptable for use today,” Tom Carpenter, head of the Hanford Challenge watchdog group, told the AP. “They are all beyond their design life. None of them should be in service. And yet, they’re holding two-thirds of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.”