Hanford wants to send some of its radioactive tank wastes to New Mexico. However, New Mexico might not want to accept it.
Gov. Jay Inslee painted the proposal as a solution to six new underground tanks suspecting of leaking highly radioactive wastes at a Hanford.
"We think that is the right step for all of us to pursue," Inslee said at a Wednesday press conference a Hanford.
Indeed, Hanford had already planned to send the wastes from five of those tanks to New Mexico before they were suspected of leaking. It was almost as if the solution was in place before the problem appeared.
On the other hand, the solution will be long and complicated — facing possible delays by the federal budget sequestration cuts, which will hit Hanford heavily.
"We have to look at the big picture," said Tom Fletcher, DOE assistant manager for tank farms at Hanford. "We have to look at the budget constraints."
The central part of the Hanford nuclear reservation has 149 single-shell tanks and 28 newer double-shell tanks holding 53 million gallons of highly radioactive fluids, sludges, gunk and crusts — all underground. There are 18 clusters of tanks — dubbed "tank farms" — spread out seven to 14 miles from the Columbia River. Sixty-seven of the single-shell tanks have been designated leakers or suspected leakers for decades, putting more than 1 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes into the ground.
Hanford has pumped almost all the liquids from the single-shell tanks into the double-shell shells, finishing that task in 2005. The single-shell tanks still hold sludge, gunk and crusts, plus tiny pockets of fluids.
Recently, tests were conducted on several single-shell tanks to see whether rainwater was leaking into them through possible cracks. Those tests showed a dip in fluid levels in Tank T-111. Engineers extrapolated that drop into a leak of 150 gallons to 300 gallons annually for an undetermined number of years. The tanks are roughly 250 to 300 above the aquifer.
Several days ago, five extra single-shell tanks showed signs of leaking. Four of the six tanks were already on the list of 67 suspected past leakers. So ultimately, the number of suspected leakers is now 69.
Hanford's long-range plans included emptying roughly 3 million gallons of gunk — with the consistency of peanut butter — from nine tanks. These wastes are dubbed "contact-handled transuranic wastes," which translates to sludges whose radioactivity is between high-level and low-level, and can be handled by people in protective suits. Lots of Hanford's wastes can be handled only by remote control. Five of the six leaking single-shell tanks are among those nine. The sixth tank holds high-level radioactive wastes.
The Department of Energy has a 2,150-foot-deep manmade cavern near Carlsbad, N.M, which accepts radioactive junk in barrels -- at the transuranic contamination levels -- for permanent storage. It is called the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or "WIPP."
DOE announced Wednesday it will put its long-standing plan regarding shipping waste to New Mexico into action for nine tanks. However, the details are up in the air.
Hanford does not yet know how it will remove the wastes from those nine tanks — including the five new leakers. It also does not know whether it will have to build a facility to convert the sludges into cement-like grout or something pebble-like that can be stored in the WIPP. It does not know whether the removed wastes will be stored in 55-gallon barrels or huge tubs while Hanford. It has no cost estimates. It does not have a deadline for nailing down the answers to those questions.
Fletcher said doing the preparation work and removing the wastes will take a few years. And a different plan is needed to deal with the sixth new leaking tank, which holds high-level radioactive wastes, he said.
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