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Storied nuke plant becomes environmental wasteland via Stars and Stripes

RICHLAND, Wash. — A stainless steel tank the size of a basketball court lies buried in the sandy soil of southeastern Washington state, an aging remnant of U.S. efforts to win World War II. The tank holds enough radioactive waste to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And it is leaking.

For 42 years, tank AY-102 has stored some of the deadliest material at one of the most environmentally contaminated places in the country: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This complex along the Columbia River holds a storied place in American history. It was here that workers produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 – effectively ending the second world war.

Today Hanford’s legacy is less about what was made here than the environmental mess left behind – and the federal government’s inability, for nearly a quarter-century now, to rid Hanford once and for all of its worst hazard: 56 million gallons of toxic waste cached in aging underground tanks.

Technical problems, mismanagement and repeated delays have plagued the interminable cleanup of the 586-square-mile site, prolonging an effort that has cost taxpayers $36 billion to date and is estimated will cost $115 billion more.

Add to that the leaks involving AY-102 and other tanks at the site, and watchdog groups, politicians and others are left wondering: Will Hanford ever really be free of its waste? If not, what will its environmental impact be on important waterways, towns and generations to come?

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