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DOE Says 10 More Years To Pass Before Hanford Nuke Tanks To Be Safe

July 20, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ More aging waste tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state could spring leaks of radioactive material before safety concerns are resolved sometime after the turn of the century, the Energy Department said Friday.

In a report to Congress, the department said it will take until the year 2000 to eliminate dangers of flammable gas generation in 23 tanks and 2004 to fully address the potential explosive mixtures of ferrocyanide in 24 tanks at the site in Richland, Wash.

In the meantime, the department is pursing ″near-term″ safety measures including, among other things, ″emergency preparedness planning.″

″Resolution of all safety issues will probably take more than 10 years,″ the report said.

Priority work will be done on the tanks that ″could lead to worker or offsite radiation exposure through an uncontrolled release of radioactive waste.″

Department officials briefed congressional staffers Friday about the status of Hanford’s 177 underground storage tanks, which house about half of the nation’s highly radioactive nuclear waste.

An aide to Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., provided a copy of the report to The Associated Press.

Congress requested the assessment after the General Accounting Office determined last fall that too little was known about the waste to rule out the possibility of an explosion that could spread dangerous doses of contamination.

The new report maintains there is a ″low probability″ of an explosion because there are no known ignition sources in the tanks and temperatures are well below those required to initiate chemical reaction.

However, the department outlined a series of concerns about the ″degraded conditions″ of the 149 single-shelled tanks, which long ago passed their design age, and 28 newer double-shelled tanks, fast approaching that age, in the south-central Washington desert bordering the Columbia River.

″Sixty six of the single-shelled tanks are either suspected or known to have leaked liquid radioactive waste to the ground and the remaining tanks can be expected to start leaking at any time in the future,″ DOE said.

Many of the tanks are nearly 50 years old, dating back to 1943 with production of plutonium for the nation’s first nuclear bombs. The tank farm now contains 60 million gallons of radioactive liquid, sludge and saltcake.

Fifty-three tanks ″may have serious potential for release of high-level radioactive waste in the event of an uncontrolled temperature or pressure increase,″ the report said.

″Tank collapse scenarios, in particular as they relate to seismic events, could lead to significant onsite radiological releases and potentially significant offsite releases,″ the report said.

The report did not say how likely it considered ″seismic events,″ that is, earthquakes.

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