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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.

New Potential Problem In Hanford Waste Tanks: Flammable Gas

Anna King
Northwest News Network
File photo of Hanford's C-Farm

How much sludge can be dumped into a double-shelled radioactive waste tank before flammable gas might build up in a big bubble?

That's the question managers and scientists at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are asking. And they are working against the clock to solve the possible new problem.

At Hanford's C-Farm, workers are pumping the radioactive sludge out old tanks with single shells into more-stable double-hulled tanks. This radioactive witch’s brew constantly generates hydrogen and other flammable gases. Scientists and engineers aren’t sure now how much the newer massive double-hulled underground tanks can hold before the sludge burps up a major flammable gas bubble.

This all matters because a legally-binding deadline is next September. That’s when all the sludge in this tank farm needs to be transferred.

“That issue can be solved long term," says Tom Fletcher, assistant manager for Hanford’s tank farms. "But from a perspective of meeting the 2014 milestone and being complete with C-Farm it’s critical to solve to make that milestone.”

Fletcher says that deadline to cleanup C-Farm is possibly in jeopardy.

There’s a total of 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge at Hanford that is left over from making plutonium for bombs during World War II and the Cold War.

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.