The History & Failures Of The Leaking Tanks At Hanford

Once part of the work to make the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the now leaking tanks have a long failure ridden history.

The tanks involved are some of the oldest tanks installed at the site. So far 73 of these old single wall tanks have leaked. The tanks at Hanford contain 53 million gallons of nuclear waste, these are also not the only high level waste at the site. To date, before the new leaks were announced it was estimated that 1 million gallons of nuclear waste had already leaked into the soil.

Adding to the concerns, the site sits on the banks of the Colombia river. The ground water and soil at the site is already heavily contaminated and inches toward the Colombia river from the site. Some of the most high risk facilities at Hanford including the bomb reactors and related buildings sit near the river and only a couple of miles from Richland, WA. The work at Hanford had already damaged the river region and attempts to clean up the mess are ongoing. Most people are shocked to find out that the tri-city area right outside Hanford is a major US apple growing region.

The tanks hold liquid chemicals and radioactive materials from the plutonium extraction process to remove the bomb material from spent reactor fuel. This isn’t the same as reactor fuel that comes out of a power reactor. The reactors at Hanford were designed and operated to create the right mix of desired plutonium with a minimal amount of unwanted isotopes. The tanks also include all sorts of other “stuff” much of it unknown. There was some evidence that even animal carcasses ended up in the tanks back in the day.

Records of what is in each tank were incomplete, extensive work goes on today to understand what is in each tank. Some tanks are so dangerous they can’t be handled. In the early days at Hanford, at times waste wasn’t even put it tanks, it was dumped into trenches.

Besides the tanks Hanford contains nine old partially disassembled bomb reactors. They sit partially taken apart and sealed in concrete under SAFESTOR status. This interim status allows radioactivity to decay but DOE also admits they don’t know how to dispose of the reactor buildings.

In the early days at Hanford workers would just go bury low level waste like contaminated uniforms out in the desert. There are no records where these were buried so workers go on a perpetual treasure hunt to find it.

Among the worst sites at Hanford are the “canyons” and the PUREX building. These were where the actual plutonium extraction took place. PUREX was the newest and last plutonium extraction plant at Hanford and also processed the bulk of the plutonium there. It operated as late as 1988 and is probably the most contaminated building on site. The rail cars used to move the spent fuel rods from the reactors to the PUREX building remain buried in the tunnel they ran in. The cars are so radioactive that the government is considering just entombing them in concrete in the tunnel rather than attempting to decontaminate them due to the high worker risk.

Building 324 sits a half mile from Richland and near the river. This building was used for experiments and housed an area where radiation levels we so high that they would be lethal in about 2 seconds. After remediation work began it was discovered the soil below the building was even more contaminated than the surrounding soil.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant raises some important questions about the entire decommissioning process. All of the equipment and the building will have to go somewhere. It will never go away and will be radioactive for thousands of years. Some of the internal equipment has been sent to South Carolina, Nevada and New Mexico. In short they just shuffled this equipment to another national lab for storage.

Hanford also contains a nuclear landfill where demolished building materials are buried and an atomic graveyard. The graveyard houses the metal reactor vessels from the navy’s discarded nuclear reactors and the vessel from the dismantled Pathfinder experimental reactor.

The vitrification plant at Hanford has been the magic bullet to bring at least the liquid wastes into a safer state. The plan is to embed the material into a glass like material to prevent it from changing or leaking into the environment. To date the plant is not completed or capable of the vitrification process. Bechtel, the contractor in charge of the plant has had their own ongoing problems. A recent 2012 DOE payment standard gave Bechtel the lowest possible payment for the work, a reflection of the various failures by the contractor. Bechtel has had numerous problems including faulty equipment it rushed into place to meet a deadline tied to monetary reward. Ironically, the contractor was reprimanded for the faulty equipment, then given a monetary reward for improving their work quality.

The plant has also had a number of whistleblower issues where workers brought up major problems at the vitrification plant. Bechtel retaliated against the workers and sought to suppress the information rather than address the issue. The key issue brought up as recent as this month, a high risk of a hydrogen explosion in the design of the new vitrification plant.

The current vitrification plant is the 4th attempt to create one and the construction budget for the current one has ballooned and is now not even known.

Want to learn more about Hanford’s history? Check out’s four part series on Hanford.
Hanford to Fukushima Part 1:

Hanford to Fukushima Part 2:

Hanford to Fukushima Part 3:

Hanford to Fukushima Part 4:

This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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