One of the biggest problems with nuclear power is the radioactive waste it produces; governments and the scientific community have struggled to find ways to safely contain the hazardous materials. Sadly, not all plans work out for the long term – at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site in Washington state, six of 177 aging tanks were recently found to be leaking toxic cargo. The site is home to 56 million gallons of waste (most of it from the production of plutonium for bombs), and this is not the first time Hanford has had problems with leaks.
Last week, Washington’s governor Jay Inslee confirmed that a number of the tanks were in fact leaking. Hanford has been called one of the most contaminated sites in the country, and it has been the target of cleanup efforts for decades. The current worry is that the radioactive sludge contains heat-generating isotopes are corroding the bottom of the tanks. They were designed in the 1940’s with a lifespan of about twenty years, and they lost their integrity sometime in the 1960’s.
According to the environmental group Hanford Challenge, a third of the tanks have failed already and have released millions of gallons of toxic material. While the Department of Energy states that there is no immediate threat to public health, Hanford Challenge asserts that groundwater has already become contaminated. The effort by the federal government to address the problems in Hanford continues, and it’s estimated to cost billions more dollars and take upwards of 40 years. Taxpayers already pay $2 billion a year to sequester the radioactive chemicals, and they are slated to pay $100 billion more to clean up the site. Time continues to tick away as millions of gallons make their way out into the environment and crews scramble to make sure that radioactive waste does not wind up in the the water table or the Columbia River.
Images via the Department of Energy and Wikicommons user Fice