YAKIMA, Wash. - Six underground tanks that hold a brew of radioactive and toxic waste at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site are leaking, federal and state officials said Friday, prompting calls for an investigation from a key senator.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the leaking material poses no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take a while - perhaps years - to reach groundwater.
But the leaking tanks raise new concerns about delays for emptying them and strike another blow to federal efforts to clean up south-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where successes often are overshadowed by delays, budget overruns and technological challenges.
In this July 14, 2010 photo, workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation work around a tank farm where highly radioactive waste is stored underground near Richland, Wash. Six underground radioactive waste tanks at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site are leaking, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.
Department of Energy spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler said there was no immediate health risk and said federal officials would work with Washington state to address the matter.
Regardless, Tom Towslee, a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the senator will be asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate Hanford's tank monitoring and maintenance program.
Wyden is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
State officials just last week announced that one of Hanford's 177 underground 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 traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to discuss the problem with federal officials. He said Friday that he learned in meetings that six tanks are leaking waste.
"We received very disturbing news today," the governor said. "I think that we are going to have a course of new action and that will be vigorously pursued in the next several weeks."
The federal government built the Hanford facility at the height of World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The remote site produced plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and continued supporting the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal for years.
Today, it is the most contaminated nuclear site in the country, still surrounded by sagebrush but with Washington's Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco several miles downriver.
Hanford's tanks hold some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste - enough to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools - and many of those tanks are known to have leaked in the past. An estimated 1 million gallons of radioactive liquid already leaked there.
The tanks also are long past their intended 20-year life span - raising concerns that even more tanks could be leaking - though they were believed to have been stabilized in 2005.