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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 Cleanup Slows While Tanks Leak, Treatment Plant Stalls

Anna King
Northwest News Network

RICHLAND, Wash. -- Up to three gallons of radioactive waste per day at Hanford seeps into the desert sand from underground tanks, not far from the Columbia River. That’s prompted Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to tour the remote site along with buses full of officials and media that roll through a sea of sagebrush.

The buses slow near some of the leaking radioactive underground tanks. Tom Fletcher, who manages the containment farms, points out the various groupings.

“So T is right in front of us to the right, you can see the yellow barrier over it. And TY is right in front of us at about a 45-degree angle to the left.”

Nearby, Governor Inslee steps off his bus in chestnut cowboy boots. Here, staring through the tank farm’s cyclone fence, Inslee asks Fletcher about the waste.

“So as you would classify this is this TRU or high level waste?”

Fletcher responds, “This is high level waste. C-Farm is all high level waste.”

Even the fastest government plans to get radioactive waste out of these aging underground tanks would take years. Inslee announces one idea on his tour: Ship some to New Mexico.

Back on the bus, Tom Fletcher says it’s hard to say how long that would take.

“… it would require permitting from New Mexico to be done as well as permitting from Washington state to be done," he explains. "And those are two unknowns.”

Now, the federal budget sequester is slowing work at Hanford even further. More than 200 employees were recently handed layoff notices. There could be 2,500 furloughs.

“What’s holding up progress at the Hanford site is the Department of Energy’s inability to resolve a host of technical problems surrounding the design of the waste treatment plant and the state of high-level waste storage tanks,” says U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman the Senate Energy Committee which watches over Hanford.

That waste treatment plant is a more than $12 billion factory that would bind-up the radioactive sludge in massive glass logs. The plant is more than half built. But safety concerns have idled major portions of the project.

“I believe before they start up those facilities again we need to have the safety and technical issues resolved,” says Donna Busche, a reluctant whistleblower and a top nuclear safety manager on the plant.

It's a big problem, she says. Since every tank is filled with different material, the government can’t tightly define what the waste will be like when it’s fed into the treatment plant. She says that’s a fundamental flaw because engineers still don’t know what the plant needs to handle.

Busche says it’s kind of like building a new home and not knowing what type of cook you are and what type of garbage disposal to buy.

“So if all you do is heat up microwave dinners, you just rinse out your plastic, the $69 model will be OK," she says. "If you’re a chef and you’re constantly cooking with new and exciting ingredients – you want the robust garbage disposal that can handle anything you put in there.”

Meanwhile, 56 million gallons of radioactive waste still brews away in leaking underground tanks in the middle of Washington’s desert. The next likely shepherd of these aging vessels is President Obama’s pick for Energy secretary Ernest Moniz. His confirmation hearing is scheduled for April 9th.

On the Web: - Department of Energy
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.