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Hanford Tanks: How Much Do We Know?

When it comes to the many underground tanks at Hanford filled with radioactive sludge, just how much do we know? U.S. Senator Ron Wyden says not enough.

He’s accusing the Department of Energy of not being forthright. In fact, he says the federal agency that manages the nuclear site held back a report that would have informed cleanup negotiations with Washington State.

On an icy Saturday morning, brave Portlanders are debarking school buses and jumping into the river for a Polar Plunge. Nearby Wyden called his press conference at a boathouse on the river to highlight why cleanup at Hanford is so important.

Just upstream near Richland, the radioactive waste tanks at Hanford are just a few miles from these same icy waters.

“This is right next to our lifeblood, the Columbia River," said Wyden. "The river that we depend on from recreation, to jobs to quality of life. This feels like the longest running battle since the Trojan War, it just goes on and on.”

Wyden was talking about the ongoing effort to cleanup underground tanks full of radioactive waste at Hanford. The site has been riddled with challenges: Whistleblowers, missed deadlines and aging, leaking tanks.

And now the latest development, Wyden says the Department of Energy held-back key documents from Washington state and lawmakers that would have informed negotiations on cleanup.

So, what’s to clean up? 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in aging underground tanks. Most of these tanks have one hull, and many have leaked.

Twenty-eight newer, supposedly stronger tanks were built later at Hanford. Wyden says these tanks were supposed to be part of the solution to empty the aging single-shell tanks. Now, Wyden says this held-back government report says some of these newer tanks have construction problems too.

Wyden says the region needs new ideas to stabilize the situation.

“I’m not saying news tanks this morning," he said. "I’m saying new tanks should be one of the options looked at.”

But new tanks would be an expensive option -- costing many millions of dollars for each new one. And top officials on the site and some politicians say building new underground waste tanks at Hanford would take focus off the end goal -- treating the radioactive sludge.

That plan involves binding up the sludge in massive glass logs in a hulking factory being built at Hanford now. But that yet-to-be completed treatment plant has many problems of its own. It has a complicated design that’s stalled major parts of the plant.

Wyden says waiting any longer for completion of the treatment plant or a solution on these tanks is putting the Northwest at risk. The region could lose federal political support and more importantly -- cleanup money.

“There is a big, big urgency in the sense that in tight budget times we’ve got to show that we’re producing, we’ve got to show that we’re actually getting it cleaned up.”

The Department of Energy's Tom Fletcher, based in Richland, says he’s not sure why state decision makers didn’t see the report on possible construction flaws on Hanford tanks. But he says the agency has a program that checks the tanks regularly for leaks and maintenance.

Senator Wyden has asked the head of the Energy Department, Secretary Ernest Moniz, for a new plan on Hanford tanks in 45 days.

Hanford was where the federal government produced plutonium for World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the biggest cleanup efforts on the planet.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network

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.