After meeting with Energy Secretary Steven Chu Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says at least six underground single-shell tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington are leaking, not one as reported last week.
Inslee called the latest development "very disturbing news" and called for a new action plan to remove the nuclear material.
“There is no immediate or near-term health risk associated with these newly discovered leaks, which are more than 10 miles from the Columbia River," Inslee said in a news release. “But nonetheless this is disturbing news for all Washingtonians. One week ago, Secretary Chu told me there was one tank leaking. But he told me today that his department did not adequately analyze data it had that would have shown the other tanks that are leaking."
The amount that is leaking varies from tank to tank, but Inslee did not have specific amounts.
Inslee says Chu blames the Department of Energy's failure to catch the leaks on their inability to properly evaluate the data from the monitors. The leaking was so small over a short period of time that it was imperceptible. If they had looked at the data over a longer period of time, they would have detected the leaks earlier.
Chu said there will be additional evaluations and information released in the coming days.
Inslee said the tanks cannot be fixed and the only option is to remove the radioactive liquid. They currently do not have a plan to store any radioactive material that is removed from the tanks.
The latest development comes a week after the DOE said one of the single-shell tanks, the T-111, built in the 1940s at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site was leaking around 150 to 300 gallons of liquid per year.
There are a total of 177 tanks at the Hanford site, 149 of which are single shell tanks.
The single shell tanks were known as "leakers," which was why all 149 single shell tanks were repaired in 2005. The T-111 contains approximately 447,000 gallons of highly radioactive sludge, a mixture of solids and liquids with a mud-like consistency, left from decades of plutonium production for nuclear weapons.
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, but 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. Over time, many of those tanks have leaked, threatening the groundwater and the neighboring Columbia River, the largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest.
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 raised lawsuits in recent months, claiming they were retaliated against for raising concerns about the plant’s design and safety.