One of the single-shell tanks storing radioactive waste at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site is leaking around 150 to 300 gallons of liquid per year, Washington Governor Jay Inslee said Friday, raising concerns of other storage facilities at Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
The U.S. Department of Energy said liquid levels are decreasing in one of 177 underground tanks at the nuclear reservation. Monitoring wells near the tank have not detected higher radiation levels, the agency said. Inslee said the leak could be in the range of 150 gallons to 300 gallons over the course of a year.
“I am alarmed about this on many levels,” Inslee said at a Friday afternoon 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.”
There are a total of 177 tanks at the Hanford site, 149 of which are single shell tanks.
Inslee said the amount of radioactive waste leaked does not pose an immediate public health threat, and Hanford has seen bigger leaks before, but what concerns the governor's office is this could be the first of many leaks.
"There's some suggestion that this leak has been going on for years rather than weeks," said Inslee.
The reported tank, the T-111, was built in the 1940s. The tanks were known as "leakers," which was why all 149 single shell tankers were repaired in 2005. The T-111 currently 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.
"One of the reasons this is disturbing news is we were told this problem was dealt with years ago and was under control, " Inslee said. "We cannot leave 149 single-shelled tanks with high level radioactive liquid and sludge in the ground for decades after their design life."
The tank is the first to have been documented to be losing liquids since all of the Hanford tanks were stabilized in 2005.
"Two-hundred gallons a year times 200 question marks is really the question," said Keith Phillips, Washington state energy policy advisor.
Inslee is meeting with Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu next week. He wants to know how the leak at Hanford will be cleaned up and what's being done to make sure it doesn't happen again.
When asked if the state will sue the federal government, Inslee said it was too early to talk about that, but it is an option.
"Let me be clear. Washington state has a zero tolerance policy on radioactive leaks," Inslee said.
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.
KING 5's Liza Javier and Drew Mikkelsen contributed to this report.