Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Kelly Lundeen
In the 1980s, when highly radioactive liquid wastes were found to be leaking from old, corroded underground tanks at the Hanford Reservation in Eastern Washington State, the Department of Energy announced that double-walled tanks were the answer.
Now a second double-shell radioactive waste tank has been found to be leaking at the superfund site, which holds the distinction of being the most radioactively contaminated site in the US. There are additional confirmed leaks in 67 single-shell tanks out of 177.
One thousand, seven hundred gallons of radioactive waste have leaked into the soil from Tank B-109 since it was first suspected of leaking in March 2019, but the Department of Energy (DOE) waited over a year before launching an investigation. The leaking 123,000-gallon tank is loaded with liquid and solid waste from plutonium production done there from 1946-1976, and there are no plans to stop the leak.
The Hanford site is responsible for producing two-thirds of the plutonium used for the United States’s cold war nuclear weapons. DOE spokesperson Geoff Tyree assured the public that, “Contamination in this area is not new and mitigation actions have been in place for decades.”
“The tanks hold half a century’s worth of highly radioactive and poisonous by-products of nuclear weapons production,” and “about a million gallons of liquids has leaked,” the New York Times reported in 1997. If contaminated ground water reaches the Columbia River which borders the Hanford site, radioactive material could enter the food chain, “and could expose people to radiation for centuries,”the Times predicted back then.
At the last five-year review of the decades-long cleanup and waste treatment operations in 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency Project Manager Dennis Faulk reported, “Contaminated in-area groundwater is still flowing freely into the Columbia” [River]. Ken Niles, retired head of the Oregon Department of Energy’s Hanford program admitted of the cleanup effort, “Its cost overruns and schedule delays are legendary.” Niles went on to say, “Some scenarios show treatment continuing well past the year 2100, and all scenarios show cost estimates in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The citizen’s watchdog group Hanford Challenge paints a sobering picture for those who work around the tanks. “Since March 2014, over 100 workers suffered vapor exposures serious enough to seek medical evaluation,” the group reported in April.
— State of Washington Department of Ecology, Apr. 29, 2021; Tri-City Herald, Aug. 10, 2020; Hanford Challenge, 2019; “Radioactive Waste Still Flooding Columbia River, EPA Says” Courthouse News, June 8, 2017; “Radiation Leaks at Hanford Threaten River, Experts say,” New York Times, Oct. 11, 1997