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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.

The First Hanford Tank Farm Is Almost Cleaned Out. Now What Happens? 

U.S. Department of Energy
After nearly two decades of work, contractors at Hanford have just finished cleaning out the first of 177 radioactive waste tanks.

A major milestone is approaching at the Hanford Site in southeast Washington state. After nearly two decades of work, contractors have just finished cleaning out the first group of 16 radioactive waste tanks.

After the tank farm is officially declared cleaned out by Washington’s Department of Ecology, the federal government has to decide what to do with the tanks themselves.

Either all the tanks, contaminated soil and equipment and piping would have to be dug up and disposed of—a hazardous and expensive job—or the U.S. Department of Energy would have to make its case to leave the tanks in place, sealing them off.

Ecology said the feds might be proposing the landfill option soon. That would mean contractors would clean up ‘hot spots’ of soil, grout the tanks closed forever and probably cover the entire farm with some kind of structure so rainwater couldn’t seep in.

Ecology officials think a plan will be rolled out to the public in the first half of 2018.

In total, there are 177 tanks at Hanford. They hold more than 50 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge. About 1 million gallons of waste has already leaked from multiple tanks already. The federal government has spent millions of dollars transferring waste from older single-hulled tanks to newer double-hulled tanks.

All of the tanks at Hanford date back to World War II and the Cold War. The tank waste is leftover from making plutonium for nuclear bombs.

The federal government is still trying to build a huge factory to treat all the radioactive waste. But that factory has been under a lot of scrutiny as it has cost more and taken much longer than planned.

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.