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State, federal officials investigate possible new leak at Hanford

June 21, 2013|By Michael Muskal
  • Workers wear protective clothing at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash.
Workers wear protective clothing at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near… (Ted S. Warren / Associated…)

State and federal officials are investigating a higher level of radioactivity that may indicate a leak from a tank holding radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state.

The U.S. Energy Department said workers had detected higher radioactivity levels under tank AY-102 during a routine inspection Thursday.

“The Department of Energy has been actively monitoring double-shell tank AY-102 since it was discovered to have a slow leak from the primary tank,” the department said in a statement emailed to reporters on Friday. “Workers detected an increased level of contamination during a routine removal of water and survey of the leak detection pit.”

Spokeswoman Lori Gamache said by telephone that the department had notified Washington state officials and was investigating.

“The source of contamination is not yet verified, but may be an indication of a leak from the AY-102 tank’s secondary containment. However, further assessment must be completed before a determination can be made regarding the contamination source,” the agency said.

The Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group that has helped expose many of the technical and management problems at the project, issued a statement calling for more accountability and increased oversight.

"As recently as two days ago, during Secretary of Energy [Ernest] Moniz’s visit to the Hanford Site, Moniz assured reporters that the AY-102 leak was contained in the annulus and the leak had not grown. Today’s news highlights the need for further transparency and urgent action." the statement said. 

The problems at Hanford are well known and it is considered the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation. The site, in the town of Hanford in south-central Washington, was the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. The plutonium from the site was used in the first nuclear bomb and in the weapon detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II.

The tanks holding the waste are beyond their expected life spans. State officials have been pushing the Energy Department to deal with the leaking tanks at Hanford.

“I continue to have serious concerns regarding the pace of addressing the leaking tanks,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a prepared statement emailed to reporters on Friday. “We will be insisting on an acceleration of remediation of all the tanks, not just AY-102. [The Energy Department] has a legal obligation to clean up Hanford and remove or treat that waste, and we ensure that legal obligation is fulfilled.”

Inslee said the current possible leak was not an immediate health danger.

“Our state experts confirm that there is no immediate public health threat,” the governor stated. “Given the relatively early detection of this potential leak, the river is not at immediate risk of contamination should it be determined that a leak has occurred outside the tank.”


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