Hanford’s dangerous collection of nuclear waste sites, including 177 underground leaky tanks

Washington’s new nuclear waste lead takes on Hanford’s aging tanks, OPB, By Anna King (Northwest News Network), Dec. 30, 2020.

David Bowen is charged with holding the U.S. Department of Energy accountable for its cleanup of a site that once produced plutonium for nuclear weapons.

At the Hanford site in southeastern Washington, along the Columbia River, millions of gallons of radioactive sludge are cradled in aging underground tanks.

Nearly 2,000 capsules filled with cesium and strontium rest unquietly in an old, glowing-blue pool of water. Two reactors along the Columbia still need to be sealed up and cocooned.

And those are just some of the bigger waste sites out of hundreds at the 580-square-mile cleanup site.

177 underground tanks filled with radioactive waste   It’s a lot to ponder and a steep learning curve for freshly hired David Bowen. …..He started his new job Dec. 16 as the Nuclear Waste Program lead for Washington’s Department of Ecology in Richland.

he’ll hold the U.S. Department of Energy accountable for its cleanup at the site using the Tri-Party Agreement. That’s a 1989 document struck between Ecology, the federal Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hanford houses leftovers from World War II and the Cold War, when it was the nation’s factory for plutonium. Trenches, pits and buildings are all contaminated with loads of chemicals and radioactive waste generated at breakneck speed.

The stickiest problem: 177 tanks — some of them leakers — filled with radioactive waste.

“Some of [the underground tanks] are 50-plus years old,” Bowen said. “And they weren’t designed to last this long. There are still fluids in them, millions of gallons, in sludge, et cetera. So, there’s the opportunity for that to escape and get into the Columbia River — or the groundwater is high.”

A massive waste treatment plant is being built in the desert at Hanford to treat that tank waste. But the cleanup timeline has been pushed back several times since the 1980s. It could be pushed back more because of the pandemic.

……. Aging infrastructure, aging expertsHanford is much like a complex small city: thousands of commuting workers, miles of highways and intertwining roads.

Then there are all the stakeholders: multiple tribes, Seattle-based Hanford watchdog groups, salmon and Columbia River advocates and multiple government agencies. Losing Hanford experts to retirement or attrition to other agencies is a big problem — and a growing one. Some key Ecology experts have recently been lured away to federal posts or to work as Hanford contractors. And many have already retired. Bowen said he’s well aware he needs to work fast……… https://www.opb.org/article/2020/12/29/washington-nuclear-waste-program-manager-hanford/


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