Hanford Tanks: How Much Do We Know?

By Anna King

When it comes to the many underground tanks at Hanford filled with radioactive sludge, just how much do we know? U.S. Senator Ron Wyden says not enough. He’s accusing the Department of Energy of not being forthright. In fact he says the federal agency that manages the nuclear site held back a report that would have informed cleanup negotiations with Washington State.

On an icy Saturday morning, brave Portlanders are debarking school buses and jumping into the river for a Polar Plunge. Nearby, Senator Ron Wyden called his press conference at a boathouse on the river to highlight why cleanup at Hanford is so important. Just upstream near Richland, the radioactive waste tanks at Hanford are a few miles from these same icy waters.

Ron Wyden: “This is right next to our lifeblood, the Columbia River. The river that we depend on from everything from recreation, to jobs to quality of life. This feels like the longest running battle since the Trojan War, it just goes on and on.”

Wyden is talking about the ongoing effort to cleanup underground tanks full of radioactive waste at Hanford. The site has been riddled with challenges: Whistleblowers, missed deadlines and aging, leaking tanks. And now the latest development, Wyden says the Department of Energy held-back key documents from Washington state and lawmakers that would have informed negotiations on cleanup.
So, what’s to clean up? Fifty-six-million-gallons of radioactive waste in aging underground tanks. Most of these tanks have one hull, and many have leaked. Twenty-eight newer, supposedly stronger tanks were built later at Hanford. Wyden says these tanks were supposed to be part of the solution to empty the aging single-shell tanks. Now, Wyden says this held-back government report says some of these newer tanks have construction problems too. Wyden says the region needs new ideas to stabilize the situation.

Anna King: “Are you saying new tanks because we can’t figure out the rest of this mess?”
Ron Wyden: “I’m not saying news tanks this morning. I’m saying new tanks should be one of the options looked at.”

But new tanks would be an expensive option -- costing many millions of dollars for each new one. And top officials on the site and some politicians say building new underground waste tanks at Hanford would take focus off the end goal – treating the radioactive sludge. That plan involves binding up the sludge in massive glass logs in a huge factory being built at Hanford now. But that yet-to-be completed treatment plant has many problems of its own. It has a complicated design that’s stalled major parts of the plant.
Wyden says waiting any longer for completion of the treatment plant or a solution on these tanks is putting the Northwest at risk. The region could lose federal political support and more importantly -- cleanup money.

Ron Wyden: “There is a big, big urgency in the sense that in tight budget times we’ve got to show that we’re producing, we’ve got to show that we’re actually getting it cleaned up.”

Tom Fletcher is with the Department of Energy in Richland. He says he’s not sure why state decision makers didn’t see the report on possible construction flaws on Hanford tanks. But he says the agency has a program that checks the tanks regularly for leaks and maintenance.

Senator Wyden has asked the head of the Energy Department, Secretary Ernest Moniz, for a new plan on Hanford tanks in 45 days. Hanford was where the federal government produced plutonium for World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the biggest cleanup efforts on the planet.

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