Nuclear Waste Seeping From Container In Hazardous Wash. State Facility

NPR icon by Korva Coleman
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They thought they'd managed this problem a few years ago. But Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee got a disturbing call Friday from Energy Secretary Steven Chu: Nuclear waste is leaking out of a tank in one of the most contaminated nuclear waste sites in the U.S.

Inslee released a statement, saying 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."

Northwest News Network reporter Anna King, who's tracking the Hanford site, found activists who say there's a worse problem than the leak: Now that the tank is breached, where will officials put the toxic waste?

"Tom Carpenter heads the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge. He says Friday's news highlights the fact that there's little space to move highly radioactive waste to. So Carpenter asks, 'If you have another leak, what do you do? You don't have any strategy for that.' And the Hanford Advisory Board and the state of Washington and Hanford Challenge and others have been calling upon the Department of Energy to build new tanks. That call has been met with silence."

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. Worse, they've 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 March 1 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," according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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