Second Hanford Nuclear Leak Suspected At Washington State Nuclear Waste Storage Site

Another tank is being checked for possible leakage after a higher-than-normal radiation reading was taken from a double-shelled tank that holds tons of nuclear waste at the Hanford nuclear waste storage site in southern Washington. Officials were alerted to a possible leak when an alarm went off, indicating unusually high levels of radiation. However, video camera inspections between the two shells don’t show any indication of leakage.

The Tri-City Herald reported that the tanks at the Hanford nuclear waste storage site store 56 million gallons of nuclear waste leftover from the decades-old nuclear weapons program and the production of plutonium. There 28 doubled-shelled tanks at Hanford with the oldest having been built in 1969. Tank AY-102, the oldest tank at Hanford, is being emptied because a leak was found between the interior and anterior shell.

There are concerns about possible leakage of the second oldest tank, Tank AY-101, after a routine radiation test came back indicating higher-than-normal levels. A camera inspection of the annulus, or the layer in between the two shells, was conducted and everything could be seen except an area under some pipes. There was no indication that anything has changed in the annulus since regular annual inspections from 2012 to now.

Although the radiation levels weren’t high enough to cause major alarm, according to Tom Fletcher, an assistant manager for the Department of Energy at the Hanford nuclear waste storage site, the samples did contain cesium, americium, and plutonium, which is consistent with the materials that are being stored in the tanks.

The first tank, which is currently being emptied, had leaked an estimated 3,000 – 3,500 gallons of nuclear waste recently after having about 70 gallons of waste leak slowly over the course of several years. There were three, two-foot wide cracks in the inner shell that allowed the sludge to run into the opening between the inner and outer shell.

According to the Department of Energy, the leak wasn’t considered to be dangerous because it was contained within the first and second shell of the container. According to the report, the leak was so slow that it dried into a salt-like substance soon after leaking out of the nuclear waste storage container when it began, but it was reported just 10 days ago that the leak was much worse and would need to be remedied.

Just days later, alarms sounded on the second oldest tank, indicating the increased levels of radiation. DOE officials claim that the elevated cesium, americium, and plutonium still isn’t at a high enough level to be alarming. However, there still is the issue of where the leak is coming from.

Hanford nuclear waste storage includes tanks that are both single-layered and double-layered, the latter being considered the safest level of storage for this type of hazardous waste. With the possibility of two different tanks springing a leak and dumping radioactive waste into the ground, Wired asked just how safe can it be to continue storing nuclear waste, leftover from the Manhattan Project, in these tanks?

News that there is a leak, let alone possibly two, within the tanks of nuclear waste in Hanford has not been highly-publicized and no one seems to be talking about it yet. With the two oldest of the double-shelled tanks posing an environmental disaster of epic proportions, there is some concern because there is a total of 149 single shell tanks and only 28 with double shells. As the other shells get older, they can be expected to leak as well and what will be done with the single shell tanks that could leak radioactive waste straight into the ground?

[Photo by Tobin Fricke/Wikipedia via Gnu Free Documentation License]