Gov. Jay Inslee called for the federal government to speed up plans to clean up nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation after reports that highly radioactive liquid may have contaminated the soil outside an underground, double-walled tank.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz called Inslee Thursday night to report workers at Hanford had found higher radioactivity levels than expected in soil near a double-walled tank that officials already know has leaked through its interior wall.
Moniz visited the reservation Wednesday and was in Inslee’s office Thursday morning, but apparently wasn’t informed about the leak until he returned to Washington, D.C., that evening.
“There is no immediate health risk,” Inslee said. But the prospect of waste finding its way outside the second barrier “raises very troubling questions,” he added.
The federal government has fallen behind on its scheduled cleanup of one of the nation’s most contaminated sites, and Washington has several options to force compliance, Inslee said. But he stopped short of threatening a lawsuit.
“We want to make sure we get movement at Hanford, not just litigation,” he said.
Hanford has some older, single-walled tanks that leak, but some of the facility’s most toxic substances have been transferred to newer, sturdier, double-walled tanks.
The U.S. Energy Department said Hanford workers detected higher radioactivity levels under tank AY-102 during a routine inspection Thursday. Testing is being done to determine whether it is from the tank or residual waste from decades of nuclear weapons production at Hanford.
State and federal officials have long said leaking tanks at Hanford do not pose an immediate threat to the environment or public health. The largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest – the Columbia River – is still at least 5 miles away and the closest communities are several miles downstream.
But if waste is escaping the tank and getting into the soil, it raises concerns about it traveling to the groundwater and someday potentially reaching the river.
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Seattle-based advocacy group Hanford Challenge, said: “This is really, really bad. They are going to pollute the ground and the groundwater with some of the nastiest stuff, and they don’t have a solution for it.”
Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said testing of the radioactive fingerprint of the waste will take several days, but the Energy Department is already moving equipment into place to pump the radioactive liquid out of the tank if necessary.
AY-102 holds about 600,000 gallons of radioactive liquid and about 250,000 gallons of radioactive sludge. Removing the liquid would likely relieve pressure that could be forcing the waste out of the tank.
The Energy Department announced last year that AY-102 was leaking between its two walls, but it said then that no waste had escaped.
Mike Geffre, an instrument technician who works for contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, said Thursday’s inspection came from a pit under the tank, like a saucer under a teacup. Water samples from the pit had an 800,000-count of radioactivity and a high dose rate, which means that workers must reduce their time in the area.
“Anything above a 500 count is considered contaminated and would have to be disposed of as nuclear waste,” Geffre said. “Plus, the amount of material we’ve seen from the leak is very small, which means it’s a very strong radioactive isotope.”