Six underground nuclear tanks in Hanford, Wash., are leaking and with it a mix of radioactive and toxic waste, announced federal and state officials on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. The Hanford site is already considered to be one of the most contaminated locations on Earth. The toxic leakage of the six underground Hanford tanks is prompting responses from Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee, senators in Washington, D.C., the Department of Energy, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and a Hanford watchdog group.
According to a CBS News report on Feb. 22, 2013, “Hanford's tanks hold some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste — enough to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools — and many of those tanks are known to have leaked in the past. An estimated 1 million gallons of radioactive liquid already leaked there.”
Only a week ago, state officials had announced that one of Hanford’s 177 underground tanks was leaking 150 to 300 gallons of toxic waste a year “posing a risk to groundwater and rivers.”
During this week’s trip to Washington, D.C., to discuss the leaking tank with federal officials, Gov. Jay Inslee learned in meetings that not just one but actually six tanks were leaking toxic waste.
"’We received very disturbing news today,’ the governor said. ‘I think that we are going to have a course of new action and that will be vigorously pursued in the next several weeks’."
That course of action is long overdue.
More than eight years ago, The Washington Post wrote on June 2, 2004, about the 586-square-mile Hanford site that,
“Here along the Columbia River, Hanford is by far the largest of the cleanup sites. Once the primary factory for making weapons-grade plutonium, the site stores about two-thirds of the country's high-level nuclear waste. It is kept in 177 underground tanks, a third of which have been leaking for decades. Hanford is bordered by the Columbia, the largest river in the West. … The leaks have tainted groundwater, creating a slowly expanding 80-square-mile plume of contamination that violates federal water standards. The plume abuts the Columbia and is a risk to the water supply for Richland, where many scientists and bureaucrats employed in the $2 billion-a-year Hanford cleanup now live.”
As a plutonium production complex, Hanford played a key role in the nation's defense beginning in the 1940's with the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb and continued for 40 years.
“The federal government built the Hanford facility at the height of World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The remote site produced plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and continued supporting the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal for years. … Today, it is the most contaminated nuclear site in the country, still surrounded by sagebrush but with Washington's Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco several miles downriver.”
While most of the current activity at the Hanford site is related to the cleanup project, Hanford’s 177 underground tanks are long past their intended 20-year life span — raising concerns that even more tanks could be leaking.
As of Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, the response by Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee is that “the leaking material poses no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take a while — perhaps years — to reach groundwater.”
The response by the Department of Energy spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler is that “there was no immediate health risk and said federal officials would work with Washington state to address the matter.”
The response by a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is that “the senator will be asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate Hanford's tank monitoring and maintenance program.”
The response by Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a Hanford watchdog group, on Friday was that “it's disappointing that the Energy Department is not further along on the waste treatment plant and that there aren't new tanks to transfer waste into. … None of these tanks would be acceptable for use today. 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."
How is it possible that despite an investment of “$2 billion-a-year Hanford cleanup” effort and an installed monitoring and maintenance program, six tanks leak a mix of radioactive and toxic waste?
According to Gov. Jay Inslee, “the falling waste levels in the six tanks were missed because only a narrow band of measurements was evaluated, rather than a wider band that would have shown the levels changing over time. … It's like if you're trying to determine if climate change is happening, only looking at the data for today. … Perhaps human error, the protocol did not call for it.”
What does the protocol “call for” and where is the $2 billion-a-year Hanford cleanup money going to?
“The federal government already spends $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup — one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally. The Energy Department has said it expects funding levels to remain the same for the foreseeable future, but a new Energy Department report released this week includes annual budgets of as much as $3.5 billion during some years of the cleanup effort. Much of that money goes toward construction of a plant to convert the underground waste into glasslike logs for safe, secure storage. The plant, last estimated at more than $12.3 billion, is billions of dollars over budget and behind schedule. It isn't expected to being operating until at least 2019.”
Six more years – it appears that at Hanford not only six nuclear underground tanks but also billions of dollars are “going to waste.”