March 30, 1998
Rod Minnott reports on one of the deadliest environmental hazards in the United States in which underground storage tanks are leaking highly radioactive waste in Southeast Washington.
CASEY RUDD, Inspector, Department of Ecology: What we're looking at--that would be the BY Tank Farm. There's 12 of the tanks. I believe these are million gallon tanks.
ROD MINOTT: This computerized drawing documents one of the deadliest environmental hazards in the United States today--giant underground storage tanks leaking highly radioactive waste from the Hanford Nuclear complex in Southeast Washington.
CASEY RUDD: And so we see the contamination.
ROD MINOTT: All that blue is contamination?
CASEY RUDD: All that blue is contamination. This particular contamination is cesium.
ROD MINOTT: Casey Rudd is an inspector for Washington State's Department of Ecology. He supervised a study that first found evidence the leaks were reaching groundwater at Hanford, groundwater that eventually feeds into the Columbia, the largest river West of the Mississippi.
CASEY RUDD: We got measures of 130-degree temperatures way down below the tanks, and that's from the waste that's leaked out of the tanks. And that tells you that this stuff has moved much farther, and it's in much greater quantity than anybody ever predicted.
ROD MINOTT: As part of his job, Rudd spends a lot of time at the Hanford site conducting inspections. For two years, he and other scientists warned about their discovery of groundwater contamination. But Rudd said the Federal Department of Energy ignored his evidence and continued to reassure the public that the soil surrounding the tanks would prevent the waste from seeping into the groundwater. Then late last year DOE officials acknowledged what many environmental activists had suspected all along.
MIKE THOMPSON, Department of Energy: (November 25, 1997) Mobile contaminants--and that's important to note that they are mobile contaminants--from some of the single shell tanks are, indeed, reaching groundwater.
ROD MINOTT: The announcement reignited debate over whether the Energy Department has mismanaged environmental cleanup at Hanford and has now jeopardized public safety.
TOM CARPENTER, Government Accountability Project: Here's the tanks here. So obviously, SX109 and SX112 are probably problems.
ROD MINOTT: Tom Carpenter heads a watchdog group, which has criticized the government's handling of the tank wastes.
TOM CARPENTER: We don't understand how much is in the groundwater, how fast it's moving there, how much is going to go there, or any of those issues, because they don't have the data to support those kind of studies yet. And they're not funding those kind of studies. So they need to re-think what they're doing out there to protect that groundwater and to protect public health and safety.
ROD MINOTT: Hanford was built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb. The nuclear weapons complex made plutonium until 1989, and when it shut down, massive amounts of toxic pollution were left behind, including 2/3 of the nation's high-level nuclear waste. Huge, million-gallon storage tanks like these were built and eventually buried underground to hold the most deadly radioactive wastes. This video offers a view inside one of the tanks. It holds a mixture of toxic liquids, solids, and sludge that include radioactive cesium and uranium. They're by-products of the process of making nuclear weapons. A giant probe is used regularly to stir some of that waste. The mixing action keeps explosive gases from building up inside some tanks. Most of these aging tanks are also well beyond their design life, and many have ruptured and leaked. Clean up is expected to cost as much as $50 billion.
JOHN STANG, Tri-City Herald: Right now we have the biggest, most complicated, most mind-boggling environmental clean-up problem in the western hemisphere.
ROD MINOTT: John Stang is a newspaper reporter who covers Hanford for the "Tri-City Herald."
JOHN STANG: What you have is 177 underground tanks. They contain 54 million gallons of radioactive waste; 67 of those tanks leak. So you have to pump the waste out of the leaking tanks into safer tanks.
ROD MINOTT: The Energy Department estimates that more than one million gallons of radioactive waste have already leaked out of the tanks. The big concern now is where that waste is headed. The tanks are located in the middle of the 560-square mile Hanford site. They're grouped into two areas, the closest about seven miles East of the Columbia River. The Columbia is a source of drinking water for more than 120,000 residents of three nearby cities. Farmers also depend on the river water for irrigation of crops that help feed the nation. Tom Bailie, a resident and farmer, says he's worried about the safety of the water supply.
TOM BAILIE, Farmer: For those of us that farm downstream this is a serious threat. I mean, we grow every type of product that's available in the grocery store in America today--except the tropical fruits--literally watermelons, potatoes, corn, wheat, alfalfa, wine. Our lives depend upon that river. And if we have an environmental disaster in that river, we've got an environmental disaster in our farms, which translates to a financial disaster.
ROGER WRIGHT: This is where the raw water comes in from the river, and then goes out to the contact basins and builders.
ROD MINOTT: Other residents, like Roger Wright, however, say they're not concerned. Wright overseas drinking water safety for the city of Richland, which sits 17 miles downstream from Hanford's waste tanks. Wright insists Richland's water is safe and says he trusts the Energy Department to protect it.
ROGER WRIGHT: We feel it's very safe. I tell people that we drink it here at work, our children drink it; our children drink it; so we feel like we've done everything we can to protect the water. Our intake structure in our water plant we feel are protected, even if there were some small amounts of contamination in our water plant. We feel like the treatment process we have here would protect the water, but we don't even think the contamination is going to get down river to us.
ROD MINOTT: The Energy Department agrees there's no immediate threat to public health or safety.
JOHN WAGONER, Department of Energy: I believe we can keep concentrations out of the Columbia River that would pose any threat to human health and safety.
ROD MINOTT: John Wagoner manages Hanford for the Energy Department. He describes the amount of groundwater pollutants from the tanks as a trickle. Even so, he says steps are being taken to safeguard public health.
JOHN WAGONER: We think we should clean up the site, and that's why we've committed to what we have. We've laid out a program particularly for the next 10 years through 2006 that would try to accelerate removing the threats that are there. In the case of the tanks, get that waste out of the tanks, begin removing it, turning it into a form like a solid glass, where it could--the stuff would be trapped in that glass, and it would never be able to get into the groundwater.
ROD MINOTT: Wagoner says the DOE will closely monitor the tanks and any leaking ones will be pumped out. In addition, the DOE is sampling and filtering groundwater to contain any serious contamination. The agency says this will ensure that waste does not get into the Columbia River. Critics like ecology inspector Rudd call the filtering inadequate and accuse the DOE of minimizing the risks.
CASEY RUDD: When they talk about their capability to pump and treat and resolve this, that is unproven, that is untrue. The hydro geologists that I work with--and I've gone over this with--very carefully with--claim that DOE at Hanford has not proven at all the capability to pump and treat the magnitude of contamination that we have in the groundwater that can be moving towards the Columbia River.
ROD MINOTT: Mike Wilson heads the nuclear waste division for the Washington State Ecology Department. He says the tank waste could become a public health threat a lot sooner than anyone expected.
MIKE WILSON, Department of Ecology: It gives us a great deal of concern because once this material is in the water it is almost impossible to retrieve it from the water, so the stuff that is now in the groundwater is going to go on towards the river. And it's going to get to the river a lot sooner than we anticipated. And although the threat is not today, it is certainly within a 20-year period now that we think this will reach the Columbia River.
ROD MINOTT: And Wilson says the radioactive leaks into the groundwater are just part of the problem.
MIKE WILSON: The bigger issue here remains getting the waste out of the tanks. It's turning off the tap first and getting the waste out of the tank so that no more of the waste that's still in those tanks gets out.
ROD MINOTT: The Energy Department has been pumping the radioactive waste into safer, double-walled tanks. But recently the agency has been scaling back that program, which targets older tanks that could leak. About 30 tanks remain in need of pumping.
CASEY RUDD: They should be pumping those tanks out 24 hours a day with every amount of work power that they have out there until they get them pumped out because we know it's not a matter of if these tanks will leak; it's simply a matter of when.
ROD MINOTT: Wagoner of the Energy Department defends the decision to slow down pumping as a budget necessity.
JOHN WAGONER: And we do want to do them as quickly as we can. These are--when you consider what's in those tanks--highly radioactive liquids. It is not a simple matter of just dropping the hose into the tank and pumping it out. You have to ensure that workers are protected from exposure to radiation; you have to install complicated systems for doing the pumping; and you have to make sure that the pumping, itself, won't create a safety hazard. It's dealing with those kinds of safety considerations that has made the cost so high and that we're trying to make changes such that we can pump basically three tanks for the price of one.
ROD MINOTT: And with both Congress and the president intent on keeping federal spending in check, there's concern funding cuts at Hanford may get larger, causing even more delays in clean up. Reporter John Stang.
JOHN STANG: So what you have is a very slow moving clean up, a very complicated clean up, an incredibly expensive clean up, and it's happening in a fairly obscure part of the United States that the rest of the country has never heard of, and Congress and the rest of the nation that's a very low priority on what Congress wants to appropriate money to and to tackle.
ROD MINOTT: No matter what happens in the budget fight, Hanford managers vow they are taking steps to readdress problems to protect the environment and public safety. Even so, environmentalists warn the clean up needs to be accelerated. They fear time may be running out on keeping some of the nation's most deadly nuclear waste from leaking into the Northwest's Columbia River.