RICHLAND -- A stainless steel tank the size of a basketball court lies buried in the sandy soil of southeastern Washington state, an aging remnant of U.S. efforts to win World War II. The tank holds enough radioactive waste to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And it is leaking.
For 42 years, tank AY-102 has stored some of the deadliest material at one of the most environmentally contaminated places in the country: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This complex is where workers produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, ending the second world war.
Today Hanford's legacy is less about what was made here than the environmental mess left behind -- and the federal government's inability, for nearly a quarter-century now, to rid Hanford once and for all of its worst hazard: 56 million gallons of toxic waste cached in aging underground tanks.
Technical problems, mismanagement and repeated delays have plagued the interminable cleanup of the 586-square-mile site, prolonging an effort that has cost taxpayers $36 billion to date and is estimated will cost $115 billion more.
Add to that the leaks involving AY-102 and other tanks at the site, and watchdog groups, politicians and others are left wondering: Will Hanford ever really be free of its waste? If not, what will its environmental impact be on important waterways, towns and generations to come?
"One corner of our country and my state acted as a stalwart during World War II and the Cold War and did the right thing," said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. "We want the federal government to fulfill its obligation to our state."
The leaks inside AY-102, a double-walled tank that was supposed to provide more protection against spillage -- as well as newer leaks found this year in six other single-walled tanks -- show how critical the situation has become.
Decades from river
The groundwater at Hanford already is contaminated, but scientists gauge the risks to be minimal because it would take decades for contaminants already in the soil to reach the Columbia River, home to endangered fish and a source of drinking water for some 175,000 people immediately downstream.
"From the standpoint of worrying about an immediate hazard, we're not there," said Ken Niles of the Oregon Department of Energy. "But the problem is that resolving these issues at Hanford takes so long."
The Energy Department previously built a $230 million plant to treat contaminated groundwater near the tank farms. The agency also is studying how best to handle the leak in AY-102, including whether to empty the tank immediately into another tank, said Kevin Smith, who heads the Energy Department's Office of River Protection in Richland. Smith acknowledged, however, that the double-shell tanks are nearing capacity.
One problem is knowing exactly what is in each tank. A database listing the contents of each is only a best-guess, relying on historical information about the site and waste samples that are very limited, said Cheryl Whalen of the state Department of Ecology.
Beyond that, "The tanks create their own chemical environment. Between the heat and the radionuclides and the chemicals that are already in there, they're just their own nuclear reactors," Whalen said. "They're generating their own little world in there."
What officials do know is that the tanks are so thermally and radioactively hot that workers must wear white hazmat suits, often with supplied air tanks, when working nearby. To date, 10 single-shell tanks have had their contents emptied into double-walled vessels, and five more are scheduled to be emptied by September 2014.
The permanent solution to eradicating Hanford's waste is a plant being built that would encase the waste in glass-like logs for disposal deep underground. The vitrification plant is among the largest industrial construction projects nationally, both in cost and sheer size. Originally bid at $4.3 billion, the price tag has since grown to more than $12.3 billion, a figure that is expected to rise even further. Once targeted for completion in 2011, the plant now won't be operating before 2019.
That pushes a deadline for treating all of the waste from 2028, under the original agreement, to 2047. Removal of contaminants from groundwater and long-term stewardship of the site will continue for at least two decades longer.
The Energy Department spends roughly $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup, or one-third of its budget for nuclear waste cleanup nationally. The federal government also directed $2 billion in stimulus money to speed up some Hanford projects.
But as part of the federal spending cuts known as sequestration, some 250 Hanford workers have received pink slips while hundreds of others will be required to take weekslong furloughs.
Inslee, who was first elected to Congress in 1992 to represent a district that includes the Hanford site maintains the belief that the project will one day be completed.
Failing to do so, he said, is just not an option.
"The country does have financial challenges, but we cannot tell our grandkids that we are going to allow pollution that may someday end up in the Columbia River," said Inslee. "That's inexcusable."