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energy & nuclear | environment

hanford radiation leak getting worse

Hanford Determines Double-Shell Tank Leaked Waste From Inner Tank - This headline on a Department of Energy press release from last October was bigger news than it appears on first glance. For the first time, the type of massive storage tank built to hold some of the most radioactive waste in the world was found to be slowly leaking.
How much has leaked?

The Leak Assessment Team estimated in October 2012 that between 190 and 520 gallons of waste had leaked into the annulus of AY-102. Last week WRPS media representatives Jerry Holloway and John Britton repeated those exact numbers to KING when asked how much had leaked so far. Holloway and Britton said that the tank was still leaking but that there has been "no appreciable change" since last year. In addition they wrote "a significant portion of the liquid has evaporated, leaving about 20 - 50 gallons of drying waste."

But KING 5 has obtained documents written this month by Washington Department of Ecology's Michelle Hendrickson stating that the amount of waste has increased by a measurable amount.

The press release said the leak was found "during a regularly scheduled" inspection of AY-102 in August.

But the KING 5 Investigators found that the first evidence that AY-102 was leaking came nearly a year earlier, in October 2011.

Why it took DOE and the private company hired to oversee the tank a full year to conduct a thorough investigation into signs of a leak of highly radioactive waste raises a larger question about the clean-up effort at Hanford - a 586 square mile patch of Central Washington that's the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere.

That question: How effective is the oversight of the private contractors doing much of the complicated work at Hanford?

"This is evidence that the company was bending over backward to not find the bad news," said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group based in Seattle. "This is the mindset at the Hanford site -- of denial."

Experts interviewed by KING 5 said making assumptions at Hanford instead of conducting thorough investigations doesn't cut it at a place with so much at stake.

"They've wasted money, they've wasted time. We can't afford to do those things out at Hanford. It's too urgent of a problem. All of us have too much invested in that clean up to succeed for that kind of mentality to prevail," said Carpenter.

"Every day that you wait (to investigate a leak), it's more material that you have to dispose of, more stuff gets contaminated and the problem gets worse and more expensive and harder to control," said Kaltofen. "Time is not our friend. This waste actually gets worse as time goes on. It's hot, it's corrosive, it eats through its container. It can't sit there, or it's going into the Columbia River. There's no other choice."

"If your alarm clock goes off, hey, it's time to go to work. If your alarm in the tank goes off, apparently it's time to wait another year," Kaltofen said.

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