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  • Hanford tank may be leaking toxic waste into soil

    Higher radioactivity detected underneath expired holding tank
  • An underground tank holding some of the worst radioactive waste at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site might be leaking into the soil.
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  • An underground tank holding some of the worst radioactive waste at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site might be leaking into the soil.
    The U.S. Energy Department said workers at Washington state's Hanford Nuclear Reservation detected higher radioactivity levels under tank AY-102 during a routine inspection late last week. Spokeswoman Lori Gamache said the department has notified Washington officials and is investigating the leak further. An engineering analysis team will conduct additional sampling and video inspection to determine the source of the contamination, she said.
    State and federal officials long have said leaking tanks at Hanford do not pose an immediate threat to the environment or public health. The largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest — the Columbia River — still is at least five miles away and the closest communities are several miles downstream.
    However, if this dangerous waste escapes the tank into the soil, it raises concerns about it traveling to the groundwater and someday potentially reaching the river.
    Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the potential leak "raises very troubling questions." He said additional testing is expected to take several days, but he also said the state will be insisting on an accelerated plan to deal with all the waste at Hanford — something the state and federal government will be discussing in the coming weeks. "If we do not receive satisfaction in those meetings in the next few weeks, we have several legal options available to us," Inslee said. "And we'll act accordingly."
    The state says there is no immediate public health threat and that the river is not at immediate risk of contamination.
    Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Seattle-based advocacy group Hanford Challenge, said, "This is really, really bad. They are going to pollute the ground and the groundwater with some of the nastiest stuff, and they don't have a solution for it."
    Downriver from Hanford in Oregon, Ken Niles was somber. "These last few months just seem like one body blow after another," said Niles of Oregon's Energy Department. "It's true this is not an immediate risk, but it's one more thing to deal with among many at Hanford."
    AY-102 is one of Hanford's 28 tanks with two walls, which were installed years ago when single-shell tanks began leaking. Some of the worst liquid in those tanks was pumped into the sturdier double-shell tanks.
    The tanks now are beyond their intended life span.
    Two radionuclides comprise much of the radioactivity in Hanford's tanks: cesium-137 and strontium-90. Both take hundreds of years to decay, and exposure to either would increase a person's risk of developing cancer.
    The Energy Department announced last year that AY-102 was leaking between its two walls, but it said then that no waste had escaped.
    However, Seattle television station KING5 has reported that the cleanup contractor and the department knew a year earlier that the tank was leaking.
    Mike Geffre, an instrument technician who works for contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, said last week's inspection came from a pit under the tank, like a saucer under a teacup. Water samples from the pit had an 800,000-count of radioactivity and a high dose rate, which means that workers must reduce their time in the area.
    "Anything above a 500 count is considered contaminated and would have to be disposed of as nuclear waste," Geffre said. "Plus, the amount of material we've seen from the leak is very small, which means it's a very strong radioactive isotope."
    At the height of World War II, the federal government created Hanford in the remote sagebrush of Eastern Washington as part of a hush-hush project to build the atomic bomb.
    The site ultimately produced plutonium for the world's first atomic blast and for one of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and it continued production through the Cold War.
    Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades. The effort — with a price tag of about $2 billion annually — has cost taxpayers $40 billion to date and is estimated will cost $115 billion more.
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