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New Hanford Tank Leak Raises Questions About Waste Storage

RICHLAND, Wash. – Now let’s shift to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the desert of southeast Washington. A double-hulled underground tank there is leaking radioactive waste.

Next week federal officials are mustering a several-hundred page report on the problem. Experts worry about what the leak means for long-term storage of radioactive tank waste at Hanford.

Think of an underground nuclear waste tank as a gigantic pasta pan with a lid. About 140 of these at Hanford have a single shell, or one layer. And over the decades these old pasta pans have leaked about a million gallons of waste into the ground not far from the Columbia River.

But about 30 more tanks are newer and have two protective hulls. Think of one pasta pan inside of another. Those tanks have been considered more stable. Now, one of those vessels is leaking into the space between its two hulls.

Governor Chris Gregiore says that makes her “unbelievably disturbed.”

View inside the space between the leaking tanks's two walls at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Energy
View inside the space between the leaking tanks's two walls at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Energy

The small amount of waste hasn’t leaked into the environment.

But as Gregoire says, “There has always been this assumption and this guarantee that this won’t happen to the double shell tanks.”

Together, all the tanks hold about 56 million gallons of toxic radioactive goo. With another tank failure, now the federal government is running out of containers to hold that sludge safely.

Gregoire says some of these double shelled tanks have exceeded their life spans.

“So why were we so confident? Why was DOE so confident that we wouldn’t see the same thing happen with the double-shelled tanks?" Gregoire says. "They were. It was misplaced. This is further verification that we can assume nothing over there.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy is checking six other double-shelled tanks more rigorously to see if they might be leaking too.

This tank in particular was where the federal government possibly intended to stage waste and get it ready for treatment. The waste’s next stop is supposed to be a $12 billion factory. It’s being designed to bind up the radioactive tank sludge into more-stable glass logs.

But parts of that plant have been delayed by technical challenges -- and its startup is still years away.

“We don’t know when the waste plant will actually open," says Tom Carpenter of the Seattle-area watchdog group Hanford Challenge. "Meanwhile the tanks are clearly deteriorating. Basically, you have to come to the conclusion, in my view, that you need space to put waste from tanks that might leak in the future. We’re going to have to look at new tanks it looks like, because we don’t have a plan B.”

But the idea of building new waste tanks at Hanford is distasteful to many.

This tank failing doesn’t leave much room for further problems, says Dieter Bohrmann, with Washington’s Ecology department.

“I think we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t see any other problems in any other double-shell tanks,” he adds.

Federal contractors in charge of the tanks say they’re still looking into what made this double-hulled tank leak. They might never know. It could be bad welding or corrosion caused by the waste.

Federal and state officials are in talks about what to do next.


Austin Jenkins contributed to this report.

On the Web:

Hanford's storage tank overview

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.