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Editorial: A perfect radioactive storm

Hanford tank leaks alarm Washington governor; fix needed now

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Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 11:14 am

“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.

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1 comment:

  • obmug posted at 9:05 pm on Tue, Feb 19, 2013.

    obmug Posts: 407

    I sense a lot of "the sky is falling" here - the same kind of alarmist polemic used to try to convince us that the sea is rising, the atmosphere is boiling, the Antarctic has melted, blizzard snowfall is greater, the polar bears are sunburned, etc, etc. While superficially logical, the argument fails for lack of a conclusion:
    - 149 single wall tanks
    - Decades of plutonium production
    - A million gallons of waste
    - Deadly for many thousands of years

    Impressive numbers; the one tank under discussion, however, is believed to be leaking 150 to 300 gallons per year - or somewhere aroung one to three quarts per day. What is missing is the effect of such leakage....does it settle in one place?.....are it's radioactive products dispersed over a large tract?.....is the level or degree of ionizing radiation constant or rising? In short, what is the danger - or the risk of not taking "swift legal action", "immediate and competant response" and expressing ourselves in "the strongest possible terms"? Do all the large numbers pass or fail the "so what?" test.

    I agree that if one tank is leaking, others might well be, too - and that all of them should be checked. We, as a nation, did create the (plutonium) bomb at Hanford, so it is rational that we ought to clean up any mess we made.

    I'll also agree that, so far, the Washington governor's phrase "perfect radioactive storm" is just that: a phrase with no basis in reality. I do think, however, it is premature to place the blame for any lack of action (immediate or measured) directly on Obama and the across-the-board budget cuts he and a bipartisan Congress set into motion.