(CBS Seattle) – A tank at the Hanford Site is leaking high-level radioactive waste, according to the Washington Department of Energy.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s office released a document outlining the situation — which reports the leak has been spewing the waste at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons per year.
Inslee says there is no immediate risk to the public’s health, however, the state has a zero tolerance policy on radioactive leakage.
“I am alarmed about this on many levels,” Inslee said at a news conference. “This raises concerns, not only about the existing leak … but also concerning the integrity of the other single shell tanks of this age.”
The Department of Energy says the roughly 75-year-old tank contains about 447,000 gallons of sludge.
Inslee’s office says the tank is the first documented to be losing liquids since an interim stabilization that happened in 2005.
There are 177 tanks at the Hanford site, 149 of which are single shell tanks.
At the height of World War II, the federal government created Hanford in the remote sagebrush of eastern Washington as part of a hush-hush project to build the atomic bomb. The site ultimately produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic blast and for one of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, effectively ending the war.
Plutonium production continued there through the Cold War. Today, Hanford is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site. Cleanup will cost billions of dollars and last decades.
Central to that cleanup is the removal of millions of gallons of a highly toxic, radioactive stew — enough to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools — from 177 aging, underground tanks. Many of those tanks have leaked over time — an estimated 1 million gallons of waste — threatening the groundwater and the neighboring Columbia River, the largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest.
Twenty- eight of those tanks have double walls, allowing the Energy Department to pump waste from leaking single-shell tanks into them. However, there is very little space left in those double-shell tanks today.
In addition, construction of a $12.3 billion plant to convert the waste to a safe, stable form is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Technical problems have slowed the project, and several workers have filed lawsuits in recent months, claiming they were retaliated against for raising concerns about the plant’s design and safety.
“We’re out of time, obviously. These tanks are starting to fail now,” said Tom Carpenter of the Hanford watchdog group Hanford Challenge. “We’ve got a problem. This is big.”
Inslee said he would be traveling to Washington D.C. next week to discuss the problem further.
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