The Hanford Question
by Janice Kaspersen, Editor, Stormwater.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a site in Washington state where nuclear waste is stored, has been in the news quite a lot in the last few weeks. First, the Department of Energy announced that as much as 300 gallons of radioactive waste is leaking from the site each year, then the state’s governor confirmed that six storage tanks (of 177 at the site) are leaking. This is a problem in any number of ways, but one big concern is for the groundwater and surface water—particularly the Columbia River—that the leaking material enters.
According to this article, which describes a reporter’s tour of the area, about 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater already underlies the site. Hanford acknowledges that over the years, 67 of its tanks—not including the six currently in question—have leaked. The tanks range in capacity from 55,000 to 100,000 gallons, and waste is moved from the bad ones into more secure ones. However, the volume of nuclear waste has exceeded what the tanks can contain, and some of it is held in other facilities or in trenches.
From the early 1940s to the late 1980s, Hanford was the site of plutonium production for use in nuclear weapons. The site was chosen in part for its isolation, but also because water from the Columbia River could be used for cooling the reactors. Some of the basins that were used to hold spent uranium rods are located only about 400 yards from the river.
A vitrification plant is currently under construction at Hanford, designed to turn all of the waste—sludge, solid, and liquid—into glass, which will be more stable and can be more easily transported. An optimistic estimate for the plant to be up and running, though, is 2022.
See also At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a Steady Drip of Toxic Trouble from The Daily Beast.