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Seattle Nonprofit Supervises Clean Up of Largest US Nuclear Waste Site as News of Leaks are Made Public


The Hanford nuclear site, built to support the Manhattan Project during World War II and located 400 yards away from the Columbia River in Washington state, is leaking. One of the main Department of Energy contractors working on site clean-up for more than 25 years, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), has gone public with information about the leaks in the inner lining of the AY-102 tank, a double-shell model installed almost 50 years ago to contain nuclear waste when 70- and 80-year-old single-shell tanks began to fail.

While the state has released a statement saying the leaks do not present an immediate danger to residents, plutonium nuclear waste is difficult to store permanently, decays slowly and can affect groundwater, ecosystems and human health a few hundred years from now.

In its 70th year, the site already has a history of contamination. According to the Hanford Challenge, a Seattle nonprofit that brings together stakeholders on the clean-up project, conducts independent environmental studies on the site and lobbies the federal government to improve technologies and meet deadlines at Hanford, the 586-square-mile nuclear site contains more than two-thirds of all the nuclear waste in the United States and has dumpled over 445 gallons - equivalent to five days flow of the Columbia River - of contaminated liquids into the ground.

An article by Hanford independent researcher James P. Thomas makes the connection between the radioactive iodine-131 isotope, released from Hanford in gas form, and the vulnerability of infants consuming milk from cows feeding on contaminated pastures. According to Thomas, scientists were aware of the now well-documented milk-iodine pathway, which causes thyroid abnormalities in both humans and animals, before Hanford was even built, but their research did not affect the decision to conduct nuclear activities at Hanford.

With only 2 percent of the radioactivity at Hanford immbolizied through vitrification or the process of stabilizing nuclear waste in glass logs, the Hanford Challenge has issued a petition to ask the federal government to build new tanks to contain the 56 million gallons of nuclear waste at Hanford.

Upcoming action on the project adresses the Tri-Party Agreement between the DOE, EPA and State of Washington Department of Ecology, legally binding the agencies to comply with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and the State of Washington Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA). Its action plan calls for:

- Closure of the Hanford single-shell tanks and final disposal of all tank wastes
- Investigation and cleanup of all contamination at operable units
- Permitting and closure of treatment, storage, and disposal units
- Ceasing disposal of all contaminated liquids to soils
- Operation of the High-Level Waste Vitrification Plant

According to the Hanford Challenge June 14 Spring newsletter, the Tri-Party agencies will release a 300 Area proposed plan by July 15, 2013. The 300 Area is a designated area on the site to immobilize uranium contamination. The Hanford Adivsory Board, the main public-involvement group on the Hanford site, has advised the DOE to use a polyphosphate injection technology to sequester and remove uranium from the groundwater.

Despite ongoing efforts to protect future generations, the complexities of containing, remediating and disposing of nuclear waste are still an unknown because radioactivity lasts for thousands of years.

Hanford Watch has a comprehensive database of Hanford in the news with a particular emphasis on educating and engaging the public, including a King5 segment on why Hanford should matter to every Washington resident.


In this short video documentary The Area: A Journey through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Cameron Salony explores the history and issues of Hanford, as he interviews local tribal members, a citizen advisory board member, former and current workers, Hanford management, regulators and more: