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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Hanford Officials Prepare For Worst With Leaking Tank

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U.S. Department of Energy

RICHLAND, Wash. – Workers the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are readying pumping equipment at a slow-leaking radioactive waste tank in case the leak gets worse. A newly released report details why the tank became unstable.

Hanford officials say so far they’ve found no waste leaking into the environment from the tank called AY-102.

The new report says many of the tanks original welds from 40 years ago didn’t meet standards and had to be fixed before it was filled. Later, super-hot waste was added that was likely corrosive to the tank’s metal walls.

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Credit U.S. Department of Energy
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Refractory installation of tank AY-102 at Hanford circa 1970.

John Britton is with the contractor that manages these tanks for the federal government. He says his company is getting ready to pump the waste out of the tank in case that becomes necessary.

“We’re not really sure of the extent of the problem with AY-102 yet," Britton says. "We’re not in a crisis situation where we’re actively pumping the tank -– we may get there. I can’t postulate whether or not if we’re going to get there.”

Britton says the leak wasn’t detected earlier because the million gallon tank has only leaked up to 520 gallons so far. He says that’s like a fraction-of-an-inch level change.

On the Web:

Tank 241 AY-102 Leak Assessment Report (US Dept. of Energy)

Hanford's Tank Farms (Hanford.gov)

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.