SPOKANE, Wash. – A new deal allows a radioactive waste storage tank to continue leaking for more than a year before its contents are pumped out at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the nation’s most polluted nuclear site.
The deal to pump nuclear waste tank AY-102, announced late Monday, is between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Washington State Department of Ecology. Under the deal, pumping of the double-walled tank would not begin until 2016, and it would take a year to complete.
The deal has outraged critics of Hanford, which for decades made plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons.
“Every day this tank leaks creates additional dangers,” said Gerry Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a long-time Hanford watchdog group. “Federal and state laws require that leaking tanks of any toxic waste must be emptied immediately. The Energy Department should not get special dispensation just because Hanford officials failed to take action over the past three years to have equipment in place to remove the wastes or to plan to build new storage tanks.”
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Plutonium production created a huge volume of nuclear waste at Hanford, and the site is now engaged in cleaning up the nation’s largest collection of nuclear waste. The most dangerous wastes are stored in 177 giant underground tanks. The sprawling site is near Richland in south-central Washington.
Several of the older single-walled tanks at Hanford have leaked. But Tank AY-102 is the only newer double-walled tank believed to be leaking. The Energy Department said the leak is between the walls of the giant tank and has not reached the environment.
The state had demanded that the Energy Department start emptying waste from the tank by Sept. 1, but the Energy Department said that was not possible because of health and safety concerns.
The Energy Department said it would not have equipment in place to start removing radioactive sludge in the bottom of the tank before March 2016. The agency said it was concerned that removing liquid waste long before the sludge would be removed would cause the sludge to generate dangerous levels of heat.
Under the deal, the deadline to finish pumping the tank was also pushed back three months, to March 4, 2017.
The Energy Department has known since October 2012 that AY-102, oldest of Hanford’s 28 double-shell tanks, had an interior leak. The department has estimated that the million-gallon tank is losing about 30 ounces of waste a week from its inner tank.
Under the deal, failure to start retrieving liquid waste from the tank by March 4, 2016, could result in a fine of $5,000 for the first week of delay, increasing to $7,500 for each week after that.
Pollet said that the settlement does not include any penalty for the Energy Department’s failure to begin emptying the tank during the past two years.