Washington Governor Jay Inslee and other state officials sounded an alarm Friday over a leaking underground storage tank at south-central Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation, a former plutonium production facility that is already the nation’s most contaminated nuclear waste site. The leaking tank contains hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive nuclear waste and is one of 177 World War II-era tanks at the site designed to last 20 years.
Gov. Inslee said that officials estimate the tank could be leaking 150 gallons to 300 gallons of nuclear waste over a year and that the long-term threat to the state’s groundwater and rivers is enormous.
“I am alarmed about this on many levels,” Inslee said during a news conference. “This raises concerns, not only about the existing leak … but also concerning the integrity of the other single shell tanks of this age.”
Built in the 1940s, the failing tank holds about 447,000 gallons of nuclear sludge with the consistency of mud. It has leaked before, but was refurbished in 1995 after the sludge was pumped into a temporary tank. Collectively the tanks, which hold enough nuclear waste to fill several Olympic swimming pools, have leaked an estimated one million gallons into the ground and water in the remote brushy region of southern Washington. The decaying nuclear site poses a direct threat to the Columbia River, the Pacific Northwest’s largest waterway.
The toxic sludge is the byproduct of several decades worth of plutonium production. The enriched plutonium was used in nuclear weapons, including the atomic bombs dropped in Japan, and production continued through the Cold War era.
But as the situation becomes increasingly dire, the federal government has failed to move on cleaning up the site and properly securing it for the future, thanks to a Congress that Gov. Inslee says has lost its ability to solve critical problems amid its own drastic budget cuts and other austerity measures. The governor said that his state is prepared to take legal action against the federal government if it fails to act.
According to the Associated Press, “construction of a $12.3 billion plant to convert the waste to a safe, stable form is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Technical problems have slowed the project, and several workers have filed lawsuits in recent months, claiming they were retaliated against for raising concerns about the plant’s design and safety.”
“We’re out of time, obviously. These tanks are starting to fail now,” said Tom Carpenter of the Hanford watchdog group Hanford Challenge. “We’ve got a problem. This is big.”