November 26, 1997 in Nation/World

Hanford Wastes Reach Aquifer, Studies Confirm

Karen Dorn Steele The Associated Press Contribute Staff writer
 

New studies confirm what some Hanford scientists have known for nearly two years: Dangerous waste from Hanford’s old tank farms has reached ground water deep beneath the 560-square-mile nuclear reservation.

Hanford officials downplayed possible consequences to the Columbia River, saying it would take decades for the tank wastes to reach the region’s largest river.

But a national group of physician-activists was quick to point out the possible dangers of high-level waste in the Columbia.

“Cesium 137, the primary radioactive element leaking from the tanks, is a known carcinogen that will remain deadly for nearly 100 years,” said Dr. Tim Takaro of Seattle, spokesperson for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

If the dangerous waste did reach the river, it could be incorporated into the food chain - exposing people to radiation for centuries.

The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday released results of two Battelle-Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draft reports on the ground water pollution. The drafts will be made final in about a month.

High-level radioactive waste from at least five of Hanford’s two dozen tank groups has reached the underground aquifer beneath Hanford, the reports say.

The 54 million gallons of tank wastes stored at Hanford are the most dangerous discards among the billions of gallons of nuclear wastes generated from 40 years of plutonium production there.

Jackson Kinzer, a senior U.S. Department of Energy manager for tank cleanup, said the new findings will make little difference in how Hanford approaches groundwater cleanup.

“This just validates the fact that tanks are contributing” to the pollution, he said.

The information released Tuesday isn’t new, said an attorney with the Government Accountability Project in Seattle, a group that helps government whistleblowers and monitors Hanford.

“It has been known since January 1996 that radioactive contamination from the tanks has reached the ground water,” said GAP attorney Tom Carpenter of Seattle.

“The DOE ground-water monitoring program always had the data, but managers ignored it,” he said.

In July, The Spokesman-Review reported on a struggle by two former Hanford whistleblowers to continue a controversial program to track leaks from 67 of the 147 old, single-wall tanks.

Casey Ruud of the Washington Department of Ecology and geophysicist John Brodeur, a member of a DOE technical team in Grand Junction, Colo., were pushing for a comprehensive ground-water monitoring program.

Their tank leak discoveries came from a program to study the vadose zone, the area of the soil around the tanks between the ground surface and the water table, about 230 feet underground.

In 1995, they discovered that highly radioactive cesium 137 had leaked at least 130 feet under some of Hanford’s oldest tanks, the SX Tank Farm in Hanford’s 200 West area.

Some Hanford managers said the radiation probably ran underground through boreholes drilled to check for contamination.

The dispute triggered an external investigation by a panel of independent experts. The panel concluded last year that the radiation didn’t leak down boreholes, but came from under the tanks.

The experts slammed the reliability of the computer models DOE had used for years to estimate risks to the Columbia River and to the public from the tank wastes, calling them “entirely unreliable” and “garbage in, garbage out.”

The panel also said toxic chromium and radioactive technetium 99 from the tanks had already reached the ground water, 210 feet beneath the surface, that flows toward the Columbia, 10 to 15 miles away.

In May, new work from the vadose zone program found that cesium and uranium had leaked deep below yet another set of tanks five miles closer to the Columbia in the 200 East area.

The vadose zone discoveries, and this week’s new reports, contradict Hanford managers’ earlier assertions that the tank wastes never went deep into the soil - and never reached ground water.

The ground water beneath the tanks already contains contaminants from more than 300 billion gallons of dilute wastewater that was pumped into the ground at Hanford from 1945 until recently.

K. Mike Thompson, Hanford’s ground-water manager, said the rate of flow of the underground aquifer has slowed significantly in recent years. That’s because water dumping from Hanford bomb-making has been stopped, reducing the size of huge underground “water mounds” that once drove the flow at a rapid clip.

Nothing from 200 West, the location of the leaky tanks in the studies, has ever gotten to the river, Thompson said.

The projections now are “close to 100 years” for the contaminants from those tanks to reach the Columbia, which flows through the nuclear reservation, he said. To reduce the ground-water threat, Hanford officials have been pumping liquids out of the 28 oldest tanks, emptying about five each year for the last few years.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE LEAK The report says cesium 137, a known carcinogen that will remain deadly for nearly 100 years, is the radioactive element leaking from tanks into the ground water. High-level radioactive waste from at least five of Hanford’s two dozen tank groups has reached the aquifer beneath the nuclear reservation. About 54 million gallons of tank wastes are stored at Hanford. No tank wastes have reached the Columbia River.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Karen Dorn Steele Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE LEAK The report says cesium 137, a known carcinogen that will remain deadly for nearly 100 years, is the radioactive element leaking from tanks into the ground water. High-level radioactive waste from at least five of Hanford’s two dozen tank groups has reached the aquifer beneath the nuclear reservation. About 54 million gallons of tank wastes are stored at Hanford. No tank wastes have reached the Columbia River.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Karen Dorn Steele Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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