New Hanford Tank Leak Raises Questions About Waste Storage

Oct 26, 2012

A double-hulled underground tank at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the desert of southeast Washington is leaking radioactive waste. Next week federal officials are mustering a several-hundred page report on the problem. Experts worry about what the leak means for long-term storage of radioactive tank waste at Hanford. From Richland, Correspondent Anna King explains.

View inside the space between the leaking tanks's two walls at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington.
Credit Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

Think of an underground nuclear waste tank as a gigantic pasta pan with a lid. About 140 of these at Hanford have a single shell, or one layer. And over the decades these old pasta pans have leaked about a million gallons of waste into the ground not far from the Columbia River. But about 30 more tanks are newer and have two protective hulls. Think of one pasta pan inside of another. Those tanks have been considered more stable. Now, one of those vessels is leaking into the space between its two hulls. Governor Chris Gregiore says that makes her:

Gregiore: “Unbelievably disturbed.”

The small amount of waste hasn’t leaked into the environment. But here’s the thing:

Gregiore: “I mean there has always been this assumption and this guarantee that this won’t happen to the double shell tanks.”

Together, all the tanks hold about 56-million-gallons of toxic radioactive goo. With another tank failure, now the federal government is running out of containers to hold that sludge safely. Gregoire says some of these double shelled tanks have exceeded their life spans.

Gregiore: “So why were we so confident? Why was DOE so confident that we wouldn’t see the same thing happen with the double-shelled tanks? They were. It was misplaced. This is further verification that we can assume nothing over there.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy is checking six other double-shelled tanks more rigorously to see if they might be leaking too. This tank in particular was where the federal government possibly intended to stage waste and get it ready for treatment. The waste’s next stop is supposed to be a 12-billion-dollar factory. It’s being designed to bind up the radioactive tank sludge into more-stable glass logs. But parts of that plant have been delayed by technical challenges -- and its startup is still years away. Here’s Tom Carpenter. He’s with the Seattle-area watchdog group Hanford Challenge.

Carpenter: “We don’t know when the waste plant will actually open. Meanwhile the tanks are clearly deteriorating. Basically, you have to come to the conclusion, in my view, that you need space to put waste from tanks that might leak in the future. We’re going to have to look at new tanks it looks like, because we don’t have a plan B.”

But the idea of building new waste tanks at Hanford is distasteful to many. This tank failing doesn’t leave much room for further problems, says Dieter Bohrmann, with Washington’s Ecology department.

Bohrmann: “I think we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t see any other problems in any other double-shell tanks.”

Federal contractors in charge of the tanks say they’re still looking into what made this double-hulled tank leak. They might never know. It could be bad welding or corrosion caused by the waste. Federal and state officials are in talks about what to do next.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio