“Perfect radioactive storm” are not words any resident along the Columbia River ever wanted to hear coming from the lips of a top elected official about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Yet this is how Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last week characterized news about a major leak of highly toxic sludge from a single-wall storage tank, at the very time the nation nears across-the-board funding cuts that could hobble any response.
There are 149 single-wall tanks at Hanford, plus 28 newer tanks with double walls. They contain residue from decades of refining plutonium for nuclear weapons, sludge that will remain deadly to living creatures for many thousands of years.
Since World War II, about 1 million gallons of this waste has escaped into surrounding soil and groundwater, sparking perhaps the most expensive environmental cleanup in human history. The newly discovered leak may total an additional 150 to 300 gallons a year – and it may have been going on for quite some time.
Built between 1943 and 1944, this leaky tank is known to have leaked in the past. All the liquids that could be pumped from it were removed in 1995. That a serious new breach has developed suggests the possibility additional water is seeping into the tank, or there has been a serious tank failure of such magnitude that even semisolid materials are now able to find a way out.
Costly design flaws have delayed completion of a facility to convert this waste into stable glass-like rods. Now, political malpractice on the part of Congress could easily extend these delays.
“We’re out of time, obviously. These tanks are starting to fail now,” said Tom Carpenter of the Hanford watchdog group Hanford Challenge. “We’ve got a problem. This is big.”
Holding out the possibility of swift legal action, Inslee said, “I am alarmed about this on many levels. This raises concerns, not only about the existing leak ... but also concerning the integrity of the other single-shell tanks of this age.”
Sen. Ron Wyden plans to visit Hanford today and Inslee meets with outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu in Washington, D.C., this week.
It is time for Pacific Northwest leaders and citizens to express our concern about this matter in the strongest possible terms. So far, “perfect radioactive storm” is merely strong rhetoric. Keeping it from becoming reality requires an immediate and competent response on the same scale our nation brought to building “the Bomb” in the first place.