Hanford Waste Tanks May Have More Plutonium Than Earlier Estimated

Jan 17, 2012

RICHLAND, Wash. – The Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s tank farms in southeast Washington may have much more plutonium than earlier estimated. That’s according to a report by a Hanford contractor that’s just been leaked to public radio. As Anna King reports, At least one high-level Hanford official worries the findings could mean a massive waste treatment plant’s design might need to be altered.

Hanford officials had estimated there were about 10 kilograms of plutonium in the site’s 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge. That waste is stored in aging underground tanks near the Columbia River. There have been several studies and independent reviews by top experts. This previously unreleased report reveals new information based on still-classified historical documents. Now, that 10-kilogram estimate has risen to at least 30 kilograms and as much as 130 kilograms of plutonium.

To put that in perspective: The bomb dropped on Nagasaki carried just over six kilograms of plutonium.

Donna Busche -- the top nuclear safety expert on the Hanford’s waste treatment plant -- says this new information could mean the plant would have to be redesigned. And that could increase the plant’s cost or delay its startup beyond 2019. Bechtel, the top contractor building the waste treatment plant, was unable to comment.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio