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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.

Just How Clean Is Clean In Hanford Waste Tanks?

US Department of Energy
File photo of tank farms under construction at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Just how clean is clean when it comes to removing radioactive tank waste? That’s one of the questions tackled in a new federal plan that will guide cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

After about 10 years of development, it’s being published in the federal register Friday.

The document says Hanford’s huge tanks of radioactive sludge should be emptied as much as possible and filled with some sort of grout or stabilizing material. But it says that the tank itself should be left in the ground.

That’s controversial. Some Hanford stakeholders believe that contaminated soil beneath the tanks from leaks should be dug up too.

Suzanne Dahl is with the Washington State Department of Ecology. She says this document reflects the best available science, but leaves big decisions like whether Hanford will ever get more radioactive waste for disposal.

“The site already has such a risk burden, from all the other contamination that already exists here, that we can’t take a lot of offsite waste if any,” says Dahl.

That decision will be made in 2019 or when Hanford has an up-and running Waste Treatment Plant to stabilize all that sludge.

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.