Governor Inslee: Six Hanford tanks are leaking

In this July 14, 2010 photo, workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation work around a a tank farm where highly radioactive waste is stored underground.
In this July 14, 2010 photo, workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation work around a a tank farm where highly radioactive waste is stored underground. AP

Six of Hanford’s underground waste storage tanks are leaking radioactive and hazardous chemical waste into the ground, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday afternoon.

Last week the state said one single-shell tank was leaking up to 300 gallons of waste a year. But after meeting Friday with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Inslee now says he’s been told five more are leaking.

Whether there could be more than six tanks leaking has not been determined, he said. Chu wants to personally study the data, according to the state of Washington.

The amount of the waste leaking from each tank varies. Several tanks date from the World War II era, with five built in 1943-1944 and the sixth in the 1950s. Three are in tank farms other than the T Tank Farm, the grouping of 16 tanks where Tank T-111 was discovered to be leaking last week.

DOE has not confirmed that six tanks are leaking, but said Friday in a statement that that they do have declining levels of liquid.

The discovery of additional leaking tanks “is disturbing news,” and raises more concerns about the condition of the rest of Hanford’s 149 single-shell tanks, the governor said. But there is no imminent health danger to the public from the leaks, he said, and DOE agreed.

Some 67 tanks are believed to have leaked in the past. However, two of the newly discovered leaking tanks — T-203 and T-204 — had not been suspected of ever leaking before now, according to Suzanne Dahl of the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The governor said DOE has had the necessary information about waste levels in the tanks for some time, but hadn’t properly evaluated it. A new study to look at anomalies in tank levels was launched last year by DOE and led to the discovery of the leaking tanks.

Repairing the tanks is not an option, Inslee said.

A new system for removing waste from the tanks is needed, and there are questions about where the retrieved waste would go, he said. There are fast and slow alternatives, which he may be able to say more about next week.

Hanford has 28 double-shell tanks to hold waste emptied from those 149 single-shell tanks. But the double-shell tanks may have had inadequate space to meet legal requirements for Hanford cleanup even before the new leaks were found, the governor said.

Inslee has called for new double-shell tanks to be built, but said that would take five years or more.DOE has previously said that 11 of Hanford’s 177 tanks contain waste that could be considered “transuranic” — typically waste contaminated with certain levels of plutonium — and had considered sending it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the nation’s repository for transuranic waste.

Five of the six leaking single-shell tanks are among the 11 DOE has previously identified as possible transuranic waste. Waste sent to New Mexico would not need to be treated first at the vitrification plant. The plant is being built to glassify up to 56 million gallons of the waste held in underground tanks from the past production of plutonium.

However, the state of New Mexico would have to agree to a permit modification, and tank waste is currently barred from being sent there.

One of the just-discovered leaking tanks, TY-105, holds 758,000 gallons. It has not been considered for potential designation as transuranic waste.

The other four tanks added to the list of current leakers Friday — tanks T-203, T-204, B-203 and B-204 — are smaller, with 55,000 gallons of capacity each. They are leaking at a suspected rate of about 15 gallons a year, Dahl said.

T-111, the tank identified as a leaker last week, has a capacity of 530,000 gallons. It and TY-105 are suspected of leaking up to 300 gallons a year.

The leaking likely has continued over several years, Dahl said.

Chu has assured Inslee that there will be immediate additional monitoring of the single-shell tanks. Although as much liquid as possible has been pumped from the enclosed, underground tanks, liquid remains trapped within the waste that remains. Tank T-111 has 38,000 gallons of liquid within a total of 447,000 gallons of waste.

Before the last of the pumpable liquids were removed from single-shell tanks in 2004, an estimated 1 million gallons of waste leaked or spilled from the tanks and their distribution systems. Some of that has reached the groundwater, but movement from central Hanford to the Columbia River — five miles away — is slow.

The federal government has moral and legal obligations to clean up Hanford even if there is no immediate health threat, Inslee said. Moving money from other Hanford projects to address the leaks is not acceptable to the state of Washington.

The Washington State Office of Attorney General continues to explore all legal options with the governor, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement Friday.

“While the magnitude of the problem is deeply troubling, compounding these concerns are the way in which we continue to learn about them,” he said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., plans to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate Hanford’s tank monitoring and maintenance program as a result of Friday’s announcement. Wyden, the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, toured Hanford Tuesday.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she is deeply concerned about the latest news.

“(It) underscores the urgency for a path forward for the Waste Treatment Plant and tank retrievals,” Murray said. “This information is critical to making an informed decision about the need for additional tanks.”

The leaking tanks are the latest in a string of setbacks to environmental cleanup progress at Hanford. In October, DOE confirmed that one of the 28 double-shell tanks was leaking waste from its inner shell into its outer shell. Work also has been stopped at the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility until technical issues are resolved.

Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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