Washington Nuke Leak Answer May Take Years, Inslee Says

Washington Governor Jay Inslee said it may take as much as four years to begin transferring radioactive sludge from leaking underground tanks at the former nuclear weapons production complex known as the Hanford Site.

“This is not something that can be done overnight,” Inslee told reporters yesterday after touring part of the U.S. Energy Department’s 586-square-mile reserve in southeast Washington. Plutonium made there went into atomic weapons including “Fat Man,” the bomb detonated over Nagasaki in 1945.

The governor’s visit came a day after the agency said more than 4,700 workers at Hanford face furloughs or layoffs under federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Inslee, who said it would take two to four years to ready the waste for shipment to New Mexico, said the proposed cuts would slow the cleanup.

“It’s the only option other than just to let this material leak into the topsoil of the State of Washington for decades,” said Inslee, a 62-year-old Democrat who took office in January.

The governor said Energy Secretary Steven Chu told him in a meeting last month that leaks were found in six of 177 underground tanks holding plutonium production waste after decades of corrosion.

The Energy Department has spent more than $16 billion since 1989 to clean up the site. Nine nuclear reactors operated at Hanford from 1944 until 1987, starting under the top-secret Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb.

Millions of Gallons

The weapons production generated 56 million gallons of radioactive waste, enough to fill a vessel the size of a football field to a depth of 150 feet, according to a December report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The Energy Department said yesterday it may transfer about 3.1 million gallons of Hanford waste to a processing facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Inslee said the agency agreed to send waste from five to eight storage tanks to New Mexico. One leaking tank’s waste isn’t suitable for transport, he said, without providing details. While he gave no estimate for the cost of the transfer, “this will be on the federal government nickel,” Inslee said.

“We think this is the right first step,” Inslee said in a press briefing at Hanford. “Our insistence on a zero-tolerance policy has resulted in an active plan to remove this waste.”

The plan may be complicated by the sequestration cuts. Funding for all of the Energy Department’s contractors in Washington state may be reduced by about $182 million, trimming the hours or jobs of as many as 4,800 employees, the department said March 5 in a letter to Inslee. Furloughs could start as soon as April 1, the agency said.

Water Source

The Columbia River borders the Hanford site for almost 50 miles. Some of the tanks are as close as five miles (eight kilometers) to the river, the largest in the Pacific Northwest and the source of irrigation for agriculture and drinking water for downstream cities.

“Every bit of the waste that drips out of these tanks is going to be a problem for someone,” said Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental group downriver from Hanford in Hood River, Oregon.

In 2000, Bechtel National, a unit of closely held Bechtel Group Inc., the largest U.S. engineering company, was awarded an 11-year, $4.3 billion contract to design and build a plant to process the waste into a glasslike substance.

Since then, the estimated completion cost has tripled to $13.4 billion and the plant’s opening has been delayed until 2019, according to the GAO report.

‘Assumed Leaker’

The leaking tanks range in capacity from 55,000 gallons to 768,000 gallons. All but the largest were built in 1943 and 1944, according to the Energy Department. One tank, known as TY-105, was labeled an “assumed leaker” in 1960, according to a March 4 report by Kevin Smith, manager of the department’s Office of River Protection, to the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board.

Radiation levels in the soil at Hanford haven’t gone up since authorities discovered that liquid levels in the first tank were falling, the department has said.

People living near Hanford say they aren’t alarmed by news of the leaks and some even joke about it.

“I’ve lived downriver from all these tanks for 75 years,” said Mart Young, who spent 25 years working at Hanford. “Every molecule of water in my body came from the Columbia River, and I’m still vertical.”

“If the lights go out, stick close to me, I glow.”

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