On Friday February 22 Washington’s newly elected Governor Jay Inslee revealed that six underground storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are leaking nuclear waste. The site is located near the Columbia River, one of the Northwest Pacific’s largest rivers that drains into the Pacific Ocean. In a statement on Friday, Gov. Inslee assured, “there is no immediate or near-term health risk associated with these newly discovered leaks,” while admitting, “nonetheless, this is disturbing news for all Washingtonians.”

He further expressed that U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu had originally informed the governor of only one leaking tank, as opposed to the total six. The department failed to accurately analyze data that would have indicated an additional five tanks were seeping nuclear waste, calling to question the capability and responsibility of the team monitoring the site’s data.

Hanford’s history: Ambitious and accident prone

The waste is leaking from six single-shell underground storage tanks, of which there are 149 holding radioactive liquids. The single-shelled tanks are far past their intended shelf-life. The first leaking tank that Secretary Chu informed Gov. Inslee of has been leaking since 2005. Holding approximately 447,000 gallons of radioactive sludge, the single-shell tank was built in the 1940s when the U.S. deemed Hanford an appropriate location for the production of Plutonium-239 used in the Manhattan Project and in the subsequent bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. The Cold War and the Korean War led to the expansion of the Hanford site, resulting in peak plutonium production between 1956 and 1963.

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With nine reactors producing plutonium, the production of nuclear waste likewise increased and was disposed into the temporary single-shell tanks, holding facilities, and even open trenches. The 149 single-shell tanks store an estimated 30 million gallons of waste; about ten percent of that is liquid waste. After over 60 years, the temporary tanks from the 1940s continue to store the radioactive material. These temporary tanks were intended to last a maximum of 20 years. A 2008 report from Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that as early as 1961 a leak from one single-shell tank was confirmed, and by the 1990s a reported 67 tanks had leaked approximately 1 million gallons of waste into the soil.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), even the tanks could not contain the material, “as the heat generated by the waste and the composition of the waste caused an estimated 67 of these tanks to leak some of their contents into the ground. Some of this liquid waste migrated through the ground and has reached the groundwater.” Furthermore, despite accidental leakage, between 1946 and 1966, approximately 121 gallons of radioactive waste was intentionally disposed into the ground, according the GAO and DOEreports.

Making a mess, cleaning it up

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The U.S. government is attempting to rectify this situation in what it has called one of the world’s largest clean up projects. The Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, commonly referred to as the Tri-Party Agreement, was signed in 1989 by the DOEEPA, and the Washington State Department of Ecology, establishing responsibilities, budgets, and clean up commitments with which all parties must comply. Initially, the agreement stipulated that the single-shell tanks be emptied by 2018 and closed by 2024, but the DOEproposed in 2008 to extend the process and empty the tanks by 2040, delaying the project by 22 years.

Speaking with Record, Dr. Joonhong Ahn, Professor and Vice Chair for the Department of Nuclear Energy at the University of California-Berkeley explains that, “In general, the longer [we wait], the worse the conditions will be with those tanks if no remedial action is taken. That means that more tanks will have leakage, resulting in greater scale of contamination of soils immediately below those tanks.” While action has been initiated, pauses and transitions have inhibited a thorough intervention.

Government organizations have also contracted work out to private corporations, such as Bechtel National Inc. (BNI), which is designated by the Department of Energy the responsibility of designing, planning, and initiating a Waste Treatment Plant. The plant will treat the radioactive waste through vitrification, in which the waste is transformed into a glass material that is safe for permanent disposal.

Bechtel began construction of the plant in 2001, completing about sixty percent of the works by 2011. However, due to construction plan modifications in 2004, the initiative required an additional $70 million and several more months of work. The plan has since undergone more changes expanding an original $4.3 billion budget to $12.2 billion, and the original opening operations for 2011 have been pushed until 2019.

Furthermore, Tri-City Herald reports that the DOE estimates plant clean up will be completed by 2047. The state of Washington sued the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2003, after the DOE failed to build concrete plans and meet deadlines established under the Tri-Party Agreement. The suit required that the DOEhalt all shipments of radioactive waste to the Hanford site as well as requesting that the shipments of such materials be deemed a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulations. However, an agreement between Gov. Locke and Energy Secretary Richardson was reached, in which the DOE would pump the most dangerous tanks first.

What’s the real reason for the hold up?

There have been some concerns that the reason for extended deadlines, postponed plans, and ballooning budgets is greed. In an exclusive interview with Record, Paige Knight, President of Hanford Watch, asserts, “ One of the beliefs of many people is that contractors and workers see this work as never-ending employment, a cash cow.” However, while “The Tri-City area profits immensely from the site,” many reasons for the slow progress can be attributed to the many changes in leadership as well as several plan modifications.

Knight believes the issue “ is really about too many layers and turnover of contractors who have to instill safety culture, make a profit, and add to that poor oversight, which includes coordination across a huge complex where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.” Layers of bureaucracy, with constantly changing plans certainly impede the work at Hanford, but with officials assuring there is no immediate threat, is there also a sense of apathy?

Officials and academics agree there is no immediate human threat, as Dr. Ahn confirms that, “the Hanford area is still strictly controlled, meaning that it is unlikely that ordinary people build their homes, drill wells for drinking and irrigation [in the leakage area].” Furthermore, the radioactive atoms, or radionuclides, in underground plumes, or streams of radioactive atoms, “usually have low solubilities in groundwaters and high sorption capabilities with soil particles. This makes transport of these radionuclides in groundwater systems very slow. This is why it is said that there is no immediate risk to human health.”

What will become of Hanford?

Over 40 percent of the outdated single-shell tanks have leaked over the past sixty years, resulting in about 1 million gallons of radioactive sludge discharged into the ground. Yet the world’s largest clean up initiative continues to lag and mistakes further confuse officials. Misread data, which failed to report five leaking tanks, calls into question the effectiveness of the operation. The severely inadequate single-shell tanks have been ignored, holding nuclear waste several decades past their recommended use.

While about sixty percent of the site has been operated on, another forty percent has yet to be dealt with, and plans are being made up on the fly for how to best work with the radioactive materials. Impromptu plans fail to meet deadlines, and the waste continues to sit, slowly working its way through the soil. While the river is five miles away, and public wells have not yet been polluted, the longer the waste is left to its own devices, the bigger the problem, as clean up will take even more time, money, and planning as time goes on.

Dr. Ahn states, “I believe that the most honest answer to this question is ‘no one knows until we actually see some consequences.’” The consequences of waiting with no substantial game plan could be severe, depending on how long it takes to actually see any consequences. The underground plumes may be slow, but the longer they are ignored, the farther they’ll move, polluting larger areas of soil. Meanwhile, the plumes will continue to work their way toward the Columbia River. Moreover, the consequences of six current tank leaks is not devastating, but considering the DOE initially read data as only one tank leak, the possibility of more leaks is not out of the question. The single-shell tanks still sit, highly prone to leaking fluids underground, invisible to everyone. How long is too long? For the consequences that may occur, it may also be too late.