YAKIMA, WASH. (AP) - Six underground tanks that hold a brew of radioactive and toxic waste at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site are leaking, federal and state officials said Friday, prompting calls for an investigation from a key senator.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the leaking material poses no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take a while _ perhaps years _ to reach groundwater.
But the leaking tanks raise new concerns about delays for emptying them and strike another blow to federal efforts to clean up south-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where successes often are overshadowed by delays, budget overruns and technological challenges.
Wyden is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
State officials just last week announced that one of Hanford’s 177 underground tanks was leaking 150 to 300 gallons a year, posing a risk to groundwater and rivers. So far, nearby monitoring wells haven’t detected higher radioactivity levels.
“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.”
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.
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.
The tanks also are long past their intended 20-year life span _ raising concerns that even more tanks could be leaking _ though they were believed to have been stabilized in 2005.
Inslee said 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,” he said. “Perhaps human error, the protocol did not call for it. But that’s not the most important thing at the moment. The important thing now is to find and address the leakers.”