Many may be unaware that the world's largest environmental cleanup project is located in the United States. Hanford nuclear site, which is owned by the federal government, is a former nuclear weapons production facility located in southeast Washington state. The site was part of Cold War efforts to ensure the United States was a nuclear powerhouse capable of holding its own against the Soviet Union. However, with the desire to maintain nuclear strength on the forefront of political minds at the time of the facility's production, the environmental impacts of the Hanford Site were placed on the back burner. As a result, when the Cold War ended, the former nuclear weapons facility became the biggest clean-up project in the world.
The government continues to deal with the aftermath of working with the "deadliest substance on earth," and things don't seem to be getting any easier. On Sunday morning, leak detector alarms sounded at the Hanford Site, and it was determined that a "catastrophic leak" had occurred in one of the facility's many nuclear waste holding tanks. With the Columbia River nearby and fears of contaminated groundwater continuing to plague the facility, the leak is renewing concerns that the Hanford Site is a risk to the public and that immediate plans must be put in place to protect vital water supplies.
King 5 News reports that concerns surrounding the Hanford nuclear site are growing, as it was revealed a "catastrophic leak" had occurred in one of the site's nuclear waste holding tanks. The leak detector alarms at the facility sounded on Sunday morning, and Hanford Site workers learned that one of the holding tank walls had been breached and nuclear waste had seeped between the tank's two walls. While the toxic waste has not made its way into the soil just yet, the leak is serious in that plant workers are now at increased risk of exposure to deadly fumes. Additionally, if the radioactive waste is not removed quickly, the outer wall could fail and the "deadliest substance on earth" would leak into nearby soil and possibly even the Columbia River.
Former Hanford worker Mike Geffre spoke with King 5 and noted that the news of the leak was not surprising, as he was the employee who first discovered the tank was failing back in 2011. Geffre says that the nuclear waste tank, known at the Hanford Site as AY-102, was failing as far back as 2011. However, when Geffre reported his findings, he claims the Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) ignored his concerns because the leak was slow.
It was reported that at the time Geffre found the link in 2011, the leak was so slow that the liquid would almost immediately dry up upon entering the space between the tanks double-layered walls. The radioactive liquid would leave a salt-like substance on the floor of the two-foot space between the tank's walls, called the annulus. However, Geffre says he expressed his concerns that the leak would grow and potentially pose a serious risk to the public. Despite his pleas, the Hanford worker says WRPS would not admit the problem until 2012, at which point they downplayed the issue by noting it posed no major public safety risk.
However, just five years after Geffre's findings, the plant has experienced what is described as a "catastrophic leak," with 8.4 inches of radioactive waste water sitting in the annulus between the tank's inner and outer walls. Unfortunately for those tasked with cleaning up the Hanford Site, the outer walls of the holding tanks were not designed to hold in radioactive waste or fumes for any period of time.
The US is playing a dangerous game of musical chairs with its nuclear waste. @sarahzhang on the Hanford leak https://t.co/gQVnLY3qjr
— WIRED Science (@WIREDScience) April 20, 2016
Geffre says the risk to workers at Hanford just went up by a factor of 10 as the secondary holding tank wall was not designed to keep the toxic fumes contained.
"This is catastrophic. This is probably the biggest event to ever happen in tank farm history. The double shell tanks were supposed to be the saviors of all saviors (to hold waste safely from people and the environment). The hazards to workers just went up by a factor of 10. The primary tanks weren't designed to stage waste like this for so many years," said a current worker. There's always the question, 'Are the outer shells compromised?'"
While Geffre says the leak is a significant threat to workers and the surrounding environment, namely the Columbia River, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Hanford tank farms contractor Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) claim that the leak was anticipated and that "there is no indication of waste leaking into the environment or risk to the public at this time."
The Washington Department of Ecology echoes the DOE and WRPS, noting that there is currently no risk to the general public from the Hanford Site leak. The Department of Ecology claims that the DOE is working diligently to remove the remaining waste from the leaking holding tank to place in a secondary containment unit but says that 20,000 gallons remain in the tank and that efforts to remove the radioactive material are on hold while scientists evaluate how to best handle the leak.
As the government works to find solutions for the mounting problems at the Hanford Site, local news reports have indicated that one of the solutions used at the facility is to pump the waste from between the walls back into the damaged unit. However, it is reported that the pump used to put the waste back into the tank has also failed.
More problems with leaking double shell tank at Hanford. The pump in photo has failed. pic.twitter.com/IiODp0tE52
— Susannah Frame (@SFrameK5) April 21, 2016
Physicians for Social Responsibility reports that the recent "catastrophic leak" is only one of many that have occurred over the years at the highly contaminated Hanford Site. It is known that more than a million gallons of nuclear waste have leaked from the site since the 1940s when the nuclear facility was opened.
"Fifty-three million gallons of high-level radioactive and chemical waste are stored in 177 huge underground tanks. One third of these aging tanks are known to have leaked more than a million gallons of waste."
Of the millions of gallons of waste reportedly contaminating nearby groundwater, the group claims that "at least 200-square miles of groundwater beneath the site is contaminated and migrating to the Columbia River with an estimated 80-square miles are contaminated above drinking water standards."
With so much controversy surrounding the Hanford nuclear site, what do you think federal officials should do to ensure that the highly toxic waste remains contained?
[Photo by Jackie Johnston, File/AP Images]