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A double-shelled tank holding more than 850,000 gallons of highly radioactive wastes may be leaking through both of its protective layers at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington.

The tank is supposed to securely store the waste until it can be processed into a more stable form for long-term disposal. Any breach of the tank’s outer layer would be a big setback for the troubled effort to clean up America’s most contaminated nuclear site, a task soaking up $2 billion in taxpayer money each year.

The possibility of a tank breach was raised Thursday, when Hanford workers discovered increased levels of contamination during a routine removal of water from a leak- detection pit near the tank.

The Energy Department is assembling an engineering team to try to determine if the tank is the source of the contamination, according to a statement released by the U.S. Energy Department.

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Gov. Jay Inslee learned of the leak in a phone call Thursday evening from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, according to statement the governor released Friday.

Inslee said state officials have determined that the leak poses no immediate threat to public health, or contamination of the Columbia River. He also said that the material found at Hanford possibly could be “legacy waste” that did not come from the tank.

But he said the situation should be treated “with the utmost seriousness.”

As of Friday afternoon, the federal Energy Department had not provided state officials with detailed information about the levels of contamination levels found in the leak pit, according to Erika Holmes, a state Department of Ecology official.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, said sources working at the site indicate the contamination found outside the tank contains Strontium 90, the same material stored in the tank.

“It (the leak pit test) came up screaming hot,” Carpenter said. “I view this as a crisis. These tanks are not supposed to fail for 50 years.”

Last year, Energy Department officials disclosed that the tank now under scrutiny — AY-102 — had leaked material through its inner wall into a 2.5-foot-wide space between the double tank walls known as the annulus. But previously, they gave no indication of problems with the outer wall.

In a plan submitted to state officials June 14, before the discovery of the contamination in the leak pit, the Energy Department said it would take 19 months to assemble the equipment required to remove all the wastes from AY-102. Under that plan, the tank would be monitored for six years, and then pumping could begin in 2019.

In a June 14 letter to state officials, Kevin Smith, manager of Hanford’s Office of River Protection, wrote that there was only a small amount of material in the annulus, and the outer wall contained the waste and prevented it from causing harm to human health or the environment.

Even before learning of the contamination, Inslee said he had concerns about the Energy Department’s tank plan. On Friday, Inslee said he would be “insisting on an acceleration” of the effort to deal with leaks.

Hanford was launched in secrecy during World War II to process plutonium for atomic bombs.

AY-102 is one of 28 double-shelled tanks — along with 149 single-shelled tanks — that collectively hold some 56 million gallons of waste.

Some of the aging single-shelled tanks are leaking, and Hanford workers have been transferring wastes from single-shelled tanks into double-shelled tanks.

The Energy Department is building a complex — at a cost of more than $13 billion — that eventually would turn the wastes into a more stable glass form in a process called vitrification.

These logs would be placed into stainless-steel containers for long-term storage.

Under a settlement plan with the state of Washington, the treatment plant is supposed to be in a startup test phase by 2019 and begin full-scale processing by 2022.

But that construction project has faced numerous technical challenges and delays.

Whistle-blowers also have charged that faulty engineering designs compromised safety and that officials retaliated against some of them who raised concerns.

In a meeting with reporters Friday, Inslee said that state officials will talk during the next few weeks with federal officials about progress toward meeting Hanford cleanup obligations.

“Frankly, the Department of Energy is way, way short of meeting those obligations today,” Inslee said.

“If we do not receive satisfaction in those meetings in the next few weeks, we have several legal options available to us and we will act accordingly.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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