Hanford, a former Cold War weapons production plant in Washington State, has been classified as one of the nation’s most contaminated facilities. Now, a new discovery is adding to that identity—at least six nuclear and chemical waste storage tanks are leaking underground at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Worse still, according to some federal officials, more of the aging tanks may also be leaking atomic waste from over 50 years of nuclear testing that took place at the site.
Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State revealed this terrible discovery on February 23, after a meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss the best plan for cleaning up the site with outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
The leak was only discovered recently because officials from the Energy department just realized that they had been measuring the 56 million gallons of waste in the Hanford tanks incorrectly. Once that fact had been discovered, the officials had no choice but to conclude that at least six tanks had dropped in volume and were leaking anywhere from a few gallons to a few hundred gallons of radioactive material annually.
Supposedly, the leaks don’t pose an immediate health threat, but Governor Inslee does say that the tanks are spilling at "levels that cause us concern and demand action."
According to a representative from his office, incoming Energy Secretary Ron Wyden will ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate a monitoring and maintenance program for Hanford’s underground-waste tanks. He has also said that he'll attempt to clean up all radioactive waste at Hanford.
Washington’s overseer of Hanford tank-waste issues, Suzanne Dahl, said it’s still too soon to determine where the radioactive material has migrated. She noted her conviction that it would take many years for the waste to contaminate the groundwater that feeds into the Columbia River, which flows just five miles away from the site.
"Is it held up directly underneath the tank farms? Is it moving? It's something we just don't know at this point," Dahl said. "We do know that there is 150 to 200 feet of dry soil between the tanks and the groundwater."
The leaky Hanford tanks were built somewhere between 1940 and 1980. The waste inside them holds such a complex mix of salts, gas, liquid and sludge that there is no real way to know the exact makeup of each tank’s contents. Because of this complication, it is difficult to figure out how to clean up the tanks and begin the $13.4 billion treatment plant that involves stabilizing the waste by turning it into glass.