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In Washington State, radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is leaking from underground containment tanks. The site contains the leftovers from plutonium production, some from World War II, most from the Cold War. And it turns out the federal budget sequester is slowing the cleanup.
From Richland, Washington, Anna King of the Northwest News Network has that story.
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ANNA KING, BYLINE: Up to three gallons of radioactive waste a day seeps into the desert sand at Hanford, not far from the Columbia River. That's prompted Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to tour the remote site. Long buses full of officials and media roll through a sea of sagebrush.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We can't hear you back here.
KING: The buses slow near some of the leaking radioactive underground tanks. Tom Fletcher, who manages the containment farms, points out the various groupings.
TOM FLETCHER: So, right in front of us to the right, you can see the yellow barrier over it. And TY is right in front of us off at about a 45-degree angle to the left.
KING: Nearby, Governor Inslee steps off his bus in chestnut cowboy boots. Here, staring through the tank farm's cyclone fence, Inslee asks Fletcher about the waste.
GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE: So is this, as far as you would classify this, is this true or high is this level waste?
FLETCHER: This is high level waste.
INSLEE: This is high level waste here.
FLETCHER: C-Farm is all high level waste.
INSLEE: Got it.
KING: Even the fastest government plans to get radioactive waste out of these aging underground tanks would take years. Inslee announces one idea on his tour: Ship some to New Mexico. Back on the bus, Tom Fletcher says it's hard to say how long that would take.
FLETCHER: It requires permitting from New Mexico to be done, as well as permitting from Washington state to be done. And those are two unknowns...
KING: Now, the federal budget sequester is slowing work at Hanford even further. More than 200 employees were recently handed layoff notices. There could be 2,500 furloughs.
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon chairs the Senate Energy Committee, which watches over the Hanford.
SENATOR RON WYDEN: What's holding up progress at the Hanford site is the Department of Energy's inability to resolve a host of technical problems surrounding the design of the waste treatment plant and the state of high level waste storage tanks.
KING: That waste treatment plant is a more than $12 billion factory that would bind-up the radioactive sludge in massive glass logs. The plant is more than half built. But safety concerns have idled major portions of the project.
DONNA BUSCHE: I believe before they start up those facilities again, we need to have the safety and technical problems resolved.
KING: Donna Busche is a reluctant whistleblower and a top nuclear safety manager on the plant. A big problem, she says, since every tank is filled with different material, the government can't tightly define what the waste will be like, when it's fed into the treatment plant. She says that's a fundamental flaw because engineers still don't know what the plant needs to handle.
Busche says it's kind of like building a new home and not knowing what type of cook you are, and what type of garbage disposal to buy.
BUSCHE: So if all you do is heat up microwave dinners, right? You don't really do anything. You just rinse out your plastic, the $69 model will be OK. If you're a chef and you're constantly cooking with new and exciting ingredients, you want the robust garbage disposal that can handle anything you put in there.
KING: Meanwhile, 56 million gallons of radioactive waste still brews away in leaking underground tanks in the middle of Washington's desert. The next likely shepherd of these aging vessels is President Obama's pick for Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. His confirmation hearing is scheduled for April 9th.
For NPR News, I'm Anna King in Richland, Washington.
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