By Annette Cary
The newly discovered leak in another of Hanford’s aging tanks storing radioactive waste does not appear to threaten the health of Washington people in the near term, said Gov. Jay Inslee.
But groups from Seattle to the Tri-Cities that follow Hanford closely spoke out after the public was told Thursday about the leak.
Demands ranged from immediately emptying the tank to building better storage tanks for waste to a pilot project that could get more waste treated soon.
DOE notified the state Thursday that the tank was leaking, after investigating that possibility since March 2019.
Estimates of the amount of waste that have leaked vary, but the Department of Ecology puts it at a rate of nearly 1,300 gallons per year with an estimated 1,700 gallons leaked into the soil since March 2019.
Tank B-109 has been in use since World War II and currently holds about 123,000 gallons of waste, including about 15,000 gallons of liquid waste.
Hanford is left with 56 million gallons of mixed radioactive and other hazardous chemical waste from the past production of two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium for its nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.
Work is underway to empty waste from leak-prone single-shell tanks into 27 newer double-shell tanks until it can be treated for permanent disposal.
As DOE works to start turning some of the tank waste into a stable glass form for disposal at the Hanford site’s $17 billion vitrification plant by the end of 2023, space is running short in the double-shell tanks.
“We should not wait any longer to build more tanks because it takes about 6 years to design and build a new tank,” Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based advocate for Hanford workers, said in a statement. “How many more tanks will leak in that timeframe?”
This new leak of B-109 puts a spotlight on the need for Congress and DOE to act immediately to increase funding for cleanup and design and build new tanks, it said.
DOE has resisted building more double-shell tanks, saying Hanford’s cleanup budget is better spent on work to dispose of the waste.
The Tri-City Development council agrees.
“The permanent solution is to get the waste out of the tanks and treat it — that needs to be the priority,” said David Reeploeg, TRIDEC vice president for federal programs. “Constructing new tanks at this point would only kick the can down the road and divert limited funds away from actual cleanup.”
“There’s no such thing as a small leak from a high-level nuclear waste tank,” said Gerry Pollet, Heart of America Northwest director. “Contamination will reach groundwater which flows to the Columbia River.”
DOE said that waste leaking into the soil from Tank B-109 would take 25 years to reach groundwater. It is in an area already contaminated from the disposal, spills and previous leaks of waste and contaminated liquids of about 52 million gallons.
About 57 of Hanford’s single-shell tanks are suspected of leaking or spilling radioactive waste into the ground in the center of the site in the past and disposing of contaminated liquids into the soil was an excepted past practice.