THE tanks at the Hanford nuclear site contain two-thirds of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, or 56 million gallons. About 70 of these tanks, built in the 1950s and ’60s, have leaked at least 1 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste into Washington’s soil and groundwater.
Another 120 million gallons of high-level waste were deliberately discharged into the soil from the tanks to make room in the tanks for more waste.
Should we care?
The overwhelming consensus is that this waste is among the deadliest materials on the planet. Not only is it toxic in microscopic quantities, some of this waste remains radioactive for hundreds, thousands, even millions of years.
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Arguments for leaving this waste buried in the tanks or in the soil at Hanford are dangerous and misinformed. Numerous studies and assessments have shown that leaked radioactive waste migrates to the groundwater much faster than assumed.
Tank waste was detected in the groundwater in the 1990s, and that groundwater flows into the Columbia River.
Does it go away then? No. Much of this waste bioaccumulates, meaning that living organisms, including humans, latch onto these radioactive products and send them to various organs — the bone, the liver, the brain, for instance — where they will irradiate the surrounding cells. Such irradiation can lead to higher risks for cancer, mutations and other illnesses.
We are at a crisis with Hanford’s tank waste. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy officially confirmed that the first of its double-shelled tanks, Tank AY-102, had failed. We have been relying on those tanks to take on waste from the failed single-shelled tanks. Hanford is now out of room in the double-shell tanks, meaning this waste has no place to go when it leaks, except into the river.
This year, the Department of Energy announced that some tanks are actively leaking. It is certain that every tank at Hanford will fail and leak. It is only a matter of time. The tanks are also a safety hazard since they generate hydrogen gas, which is explosive. Hydrogen gas levels must be constantly monitored and the tank vented when concentrations become too high.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires that Hanford’s high-level waste tanks be emptied, its contents treated and then sent to a deep geological repository. The Hanford site has been rejected as a suitable site for disposal of high-level radioactive waste for good reason. The area is surrounded by volcanoes, subject to earthquakes and is located next to the Columbia River.
It is time for Washington state to require the Department of Energy to empty the leaking tanks and build new tanks.
To be clear, building new tanks is a necessity, but it is not a permanent solution. It should be done in a manner that would generate more reserve storage space and prepare for eventual treatment of this waste into a glass matrix and disposal into a licensed deep geological repository.
To protect human health and the environment for current and future generations, it is incumbent upon the state to use its authority under state and federal law to require Hanford to pump out those tanks that have failed and are leaking.
The state can and should order the construction of new tanks to buy the needed time to address the technical failures at the waste treatment plant, which faces severe delays and disturbing questions about whether the plant can even safely operate in its current configuration.
Tom Carpenter is executive director of Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit working for a safe and effective cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site.