The perfect radioactive storm

Leaking tanks and threatened job cuts at infamous US nuclear site lead to growing environmental concerns

Concerns are growing about the possible repercussions of a leak in six of the tanks containing radioactive waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford is a decommissioned nuclear production complex located on the Columbia river in the Pacific North-Western state of Washington, and the potential for disaster posed by stored radioactive material at the plant has long been flagged by politicians, activists and environmental campaigners.

However, Federal officials now say that budget cuts may disrupt efforts to close the radioactive waste tanks currently leaking at the reservation.

In a letter to Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Tuesday, the Department of Energy said it will have to eliminate $92 million in funding for the Office of River Protection at Hanford, which will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers.

The Energy Department recently found that six tanks at Hanford are leaking radioactive waste, perhaps as much as 1,000 gallons a year. Those tanks have long surpassed their intended lifespan and officials are now searching for a solution to stop the leaking. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman wrote in his letter that the layoffs and furloughs may curtail progress related to closing the tanks.

Prior to the sending of the letter, Governor Inslee released a statement, saying that a

single shell tank at Hanford Nuclear Reservation is slowly losing between 150 and 300 gallons of radioactive waste each year. All of the liquid was removed from the tank in February 1995; what’s left is toxic sludge. Inslee said “Fortunately, there is no immediate public health risk. The newly discovered leak may not hit the groundwater for many years, and we have a groundwater treatment system in place that provides a last defense for the river. However, the fact that this tank is one of the farthest from the river is not an excuse for delay. It is a call to act now.”
As activists have pointed out, once the tank has been breached the problem shifts to th equestion of where to store the resulting leaked material.

Hanford has been in existence since the 1940s, when the site was used to prepare plutonium for bombs.

As NPR’s Martin Kaste tells our Newscast Desk, federal officials have spent many years and billions of dollars cleaning up the reservation, including efforts to protect the nearby Columbia River. There are 177 tanks holding nuclear waste at the Hanford site; Gov. Inslee says 149 are single shelled, like the leaking one. To compound the situation, all of these tanks have outlived their 20-year life expectancy.

The waste mitigation work now faces a predicament with the impending sequester, the automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts that are set to take effect on March 1st, unless Congress reaches a different arrangement on a spending plan. Inslee says this will mean layoffs at Hanford and could even stop work there. He termed the combination of the leak and the budget cuts the “perfect radioactive storm”.

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