YAKIMA, WASH. (AP) - Federal and state officials say six underground tanks holding a brew of radioactive and toxic waste are leaking at the country’s most contaminated nuclear site in south-central Washington, raising concerns about delays for emptying the aging tanks.
The leaking materials at Hanford Nuclear Reservation pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take perhaps years for the chemicals to reach groundwater, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.
But the news has renewed discussion over delays for emptying the tanks, which were installed decades ago and are long past their intended 20-year life span.
“None of these tanks would be acceptable for use today. They are all beyond their design life. None of them should be in service,” said Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a Hanford watchdog group. “And yet, they’re holding two-thirds of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.”
Just last week, state officials announced that one of Hanford’s 177 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.
The declining 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, Inslee said.
“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.”
Regardless, Sen. Ron Wyden, the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate Hanford’s tank monitoring and maintenance program, said his spokesman, Tom Towslee.
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.
Several years ago, workers at Hanford completed two of three projects deemed urgent risks to the public and the environment, removing all weapons-grade plutonium from the site and emptying leaky pools that held spent nuclear fuel just 400 yards from the river.
But successes at the site often are overshadowed by delays, budget overruns and technological challenges. Nowhere have those challenges been more apparent than in Hanford’s central plateau, home to the site’s third most urgent project: emptying the tanks.
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 has already leaked there.