Alert: Radioactive Waste leaking in Washington State

Six underground storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation along the Columbia River in Washington state were recently found to be leaking radioactive waste. The seeping waste adds to decades of soil contamination caused by leaking storage tanks at Hanford in the past and threatens to further taint groundwater below the site.

The 586-square-mile (1,518-square-km) Hanford Nuclear Reservation was established near the town of Hanford in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government program that developed the first atomic bombs.Weapons production at the site resulted in more than 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste and 130 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says that approximately 475 billion gallons of contaminated water have been discharged into the soil.

The newly discovered leaks were revealed by Governor Jay Inslee a week after the U.S. Energy Department disclosed that radioactive waste was found to be escaping from one tank at Hanford."This certainly raises serious questions about the integrity of all 149 single-shell tanks with radioactive liquid and sludge at Hanford," he said.

Suzanne Dahl, the tank waste treatment manager for the state Department of Ecology, told Reuters "It points to the age of the tanks and how there's going to be an increased probability of this happening in the future," "When waste is in the tanks, it's manageable. Once it's out of the tanks and in the soil, it's much harder to manage it, remove it, and down the road you're adding to contamination in the groundwater that already exists."

The Energy Department said a week ago that declining liquid levels in one tank at Hanford showed it was leaking at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons (568 to 1,136 liters) per year. It subsequently informed state officials that a second, larger tank was leaking at about the same rate, while the four smaller tanks were leaking at a rate of about 15 gallons per year, Dahl said.

Michio Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York, explains the scope of the problem:

Radioactive waste is a "witch's brew of chemicals," Kaku said, explaining it contains the most dangerous chemicals known to science like plutonium, enriched uranium, nitric acid and solvents. "We have 56 million gallons worth of this toxic stuff," he said. "To get this into perspective, to get your head around this, imagine 80 Olympic-sized swimming pools containing the most toxic substance known to science of which two Olympic-size swimming pools have leaked right into the ground and eventually into the water table and, perhaps, even into people's drinking water."