One Leaking Tank is Too Many

Blog post by Theresa Labriola, Riverkeeper’s Hanford Coordinator—

A sigh of relief rang through the offices of the U.S. Department of Energy last week when they reported “just one” of Hanford’s single shelled tanks storing nuclear waste is leaking. But, relief just doesn’t seem like the correct reaction. After all, this was Energy confirming that about 300 gallons of nuclear waste was escaping from T-111 every year into the ground, just miles from the Columbia River.

Maybe the sheer magnitude of Hanford’s pollution has desensitized us. The Hanford Nuclear Site is the most contaminated site in the western hemisphere. And more than a million gallons of nuclear waste has already leaked into the ground. So “just one” tank leaking 300 gallons per year is just another proverbial drop in the bucket. But each leak makes cleanup more difficult. And the longer the leaks continue and the longer cleanup stalls, the deeper the pollution travels into the soil, again complicating cleanup and increasing the cost.

To deal with the historic leaks, Energy has spent more than twenty years shuffling radioactive sludge from single shelled tanks to double shelled tanks. Now, they are encountering another problem: hydrogen gas buildup in the newer tanks. As workers transfer sludge, the radioactive witch’s brew changes, generating hydrogen and other flammable gases.

So another Catch-22 has ensnared Hanford. Now, it’s time to act on new solutions, such as building new double shelled tanks. New tanks would allow Energy to move liquids out of the single shelled tanks, prevent excessive hydrogen buildup, and be prepared for unforeseen problems such as a leak in a double shelled tank. It’s clear that it’s time to build new tanks at Hanford.