Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in south-central Washington, is America's most contaminated nuclear site. Six underground tanks holding highly radioactive waste are leaking and must be emptied.
Richard Dickin/The Tri-City Herald/AP/File
Federal and state officials say six underground tanks holding a brew of radioactive and toxic waste are leaking at the country's most contaminated nuclear site in south-central Washington, raising concerns about delays for emptying the aging tanks.
The leaking materials at Hanford Nuclear Reservation pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take perhaps years for the chemicals to reach groundwater, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.
But the news has renewed discussion over delays for emptying the tanks, which were installed decades ago and are long past their intended 20-year life span.
"None of these tanks would be acceptable for use today. They are all beyond their design life. None of them should be in service," said Tom Carpenter of HanfordChallenge, a Hanford watchdog group. "And yet, they're holding two-thirds of the nation's high-level nuclear waste."
Just last week, state officials announced that one of Hanford's 177 tanks was leaking 150 to 300 gallons a year, posing a risk to groundwater and rivers. So far, nearby monitoring wells haven't detected higher radioactivity levels.
Inslee then traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss the problem with federal officials, learning in meetings Friday that six tanks are leaking.
The declining waste levels in the six tanks were missed because only a narrow band of measurements was evaluated, rather than a wider band that would have shown the levels changing over time, Inslee said.
"It's like if you're trying to determine if climate change is happening, only looking at the data for today," he said. "Perhaps human error, the protocol did not call for it. But that's not the most important thing at the moment. The important thing now is to find and address the leakers."
Department of Energy spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler said there was no immediate health risk and that federal officials would work with Washington state to address the matter.