RICHLAND, Wash. — Washington’s governor prepared to travel to the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site to learn more about leaking radioactive waste tanks there today, a day after federal officials acknowledged budget cuts may disrupt efforts to empty the aging vessels.
South-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 177 underground tanks, which hold toxic and radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
The Energy Department recently found that six tanks at the site are leaking. And while state and federal officials have stressed that the leaks pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment, Gov. Jay Inslee says Washington state has a “zero tolerance” policy for leaks.
Further complicating matters: Officials said Tuesday that federal budget cuts may slow cleanup efforts.
In a letter to Inslee, the Department of Energy estimated it will have to eliminate $92 million for its Office of River Protection, which oversees efforts to empty the tanks and build a plant to treat the waste. The cuts will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers, the agency said.
Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor’s initial concern is for the workers, but he emphasized budget constraints cannot be an excuse to delay response to the leaking tanks.
“The federal government has a commitment to the people of Washington state to clean up Hanford, and the governor will do everything possible to make that happen,” Postman said.
The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on cleanup at Hanford — one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally — so the project is still in line to receive most of its usual federal funding.
The tanks hold millions of gallons of waste and have long surpassed their intended 20-year lifespan. The Energy Department has said the leaking tanks could be releasing as much as 1,000 gallons a year.
State and federal officials have said the leaking materials pose no immediate threat to public safety or the environment, but the leaks raise concerns about the potential for groundwater to be contaminated and, ultimately, reach the neighboring Columbia River about 5 miles away.
Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman wrote in his letter that the layoffs and furloughs may curtail progress related to closing the tanks.
The cuts within the Energy Department’s budget are the result of budget turmoil in Congress, where Republicans and President Barack Obama have been fighting over how to curtail the nation’s debt. The budget cuts were designed in 2011 to be so draconian that both sides would have to come together to find a better solution, but they failed to find a compromise.
The $85 billion in cuts apply to the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.
Energy Department officials said their budget was being reduced by some $1.9 billion.