6 leaky tanks ooze radioactive waste at Hanford nuclear site in Washington
Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in south-central Washington, is America's most contaminated nuclear site. Six underground tanks holding highly radioactive waste are leaking and must be emptied.
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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 inHanford'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.
The cornerstone of emptying the tanks is a treatment plant that will convert the waste into glasslike logs for safe, secure storage. The plant, last estimated to cost 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.
Washington state is imposing a "zero-tolerance" policy on radioactive waste leaking into the soil, Inslee said. So given those delays and the apparent deterioration of some of the tanks, the federal government will have to show that there is adequate storage for the waste in the meantime, he said.
"We are not convinced of this," he said. "There will be a robust exchange of information in the coming weeks to get to the bottom of this."
Wyden, D-Ore., toured the site earlier this week. He said he shares the governors' concerns about the integrity of the tanks but he wants more scientific information to determine it's the correct way to spend scarce money.
Wyden noted the nation's most contaminated nuclear site — and the challenges associated with ridding it of its toxic legacy — will be a subject of upcoming hearings and a higher priority in Washington, D.C.
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 calls for annual budgets of as much as $3.5 billion during some years of the cleanup effort.
There are legal, moral and ethical considerations to cleaning up the Hanford site at the national level, Inslee said, adding that he will continue to insist that the Energy Department completely clean up the site.
Associated Press writer Dina Cappiello in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.