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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.

Energy Secretary Nominee No Stranger To Hanford Tank Leaks

White House

RICHLAND, Wash. – President Obama’s nominee for the next federal Energy Secretary is no stranger to the cleanup work at the Northwest’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Ernest Moniz was Energy undersecretary during the Clinton Administration and back in the late '90s he faced scrutiny about tank leaks at Hanford.

The problem -- and question then -- was whether about a million gallons of leaked radioactive tank waste had reached the groundwater and was headed toward the Columbia River. Or if it was staying put in a dry layer of soil, above the groundwater.

Moniz said that yes, radioactive waste was leaking into the groundwater, and no – the Department of Energy hadn’t been looking very hard to see if that was happening. A government report found that Energy officials had known about the possible problem for nearly 10 years.

Moniz would face similar questions now as Energy Secretary. Recently, it was announced that six single-hulled tanks may be leaking a couple of gallons of waste a day at the site.

Some experts watching Hanford carefully say that Moniz will bring expertise and champion fundamental science to address the radioactive leaks at Hanford, as he did before. Hanford watchdog Tom Carpenter says he fears Moniz will clamp down even tighter on information coming out of the site from whistleblowers.

Washington’s Department of Ecology has said although the tank leaks are very serious, there is no immediate threat to human health.

On the Web:

Ernest Moniz profile - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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.