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Cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford: Secrecy, delays and budget debates via Crosscut

by John Stang/ August 16, 2021 / Updated at 5:25 p.m. on Aug. 19

A plan to turn radioactive waste into glass logs has raised a lot of questions, many of which don’t appear to have public answers.

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The project faces a cluster of challenges: financial, technical and political. And the secrecy around the plans to solve these issues makes it difficult for anyone to gauge whether the most polluted spot in the nation will ever become a benign stain on the landscape of eastern Washington.  

Wiegman said a retired Oregon state official who also has about 30 years invested in the glassification project recently told him: ”We’ve never been so close to treating the tank wastes, and never so far from getting it started.”

A Hanford engineer since 1980, Wiegman helped create the Office of Protection, the Department of Energy’s unit in charge of dealing with the nuclear waste stored in those tanks, serving as a senior technical adviser since the late 1990s.

Now 75 and retired since 2012, Wiegman is on the Hanford Advisory Board, which represents environmentalists, Tri-Citians, tribes, health officials, business interests and governments from across the Northwest. Currently, Wiegman is the board’s chairman. 

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During four decades of production, uranium rods and other nuclear waste were stored in 149 single-shell tanks, of which at least 68 have since sprung leaks. Hanford added 28 safer double-shell tanks and transferred the liquid wastes into them.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in those 177 underground tanks at this remote decommissioned nuclear production site near the Columbia River in Benton County. 

Those leak-prone tanks are arguably the most radiologically contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere.

At least 1 million gallons of radioactive liquids have leaked into the ground, seeping into the aquifer 200 feet below and then into the Columbia River, roughly seven miles away. Since the mid-1990s, Hanford’s plans involve mixing the waste  in the tanks with benign melted glass and then storing it in glass logs.

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