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Nuclear Site is Battling a Rising Tide of Waste: As Storage Tank Fills, Experts Are Baffled. The New York Times, September 27, 1999, pA10.
A huge radioactive crust of nuclear bomb waste is growing and rising toward the top of a million-gallon underground storage tank located near Richland, Washington, and experts are unsure of what to do about it. According to the company in charge of the tank, Lockheed Martin Hanford Corporation, a unit of Lockheed Martin, the crust was whipped up unexpectedly by a pump which was supposed to dissipate pockets of hydrogen gas. The crust of waste has now smothered one vapor sampling tube, endangers other instruments and could overflow the tank. An effort was made in May to lance the crust by high pressure water jets, but the hole made is beginning to close.
"I don't make any claims about this tank," said an outside consultant, formerly of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, hired to evaluate the situation by the Department of Energy. "I'm not convinced anyone understands the chemistry and physics involved in this crust." The twenty year old tank produces unwanted hydrogen as organic chemicals, which were mistakenly added to reduce to wastes's volume, are bombarded by the tank's radiation fields. An explosion would spread radioactive material into the environment.
Every possible solution to the problem seems to pose new environmental hazards. Transferring some of the waste from this tank to another, according to one official, might be an exercise in trading one problem tank for two problem tanks. Only one other tank is available, and wastes stored in it may be incompatible with those currently causing the problem.
In the meantime the waste's surface had climbed from 403 inches from the bottom of the tank to 435 inches. That is 13 inches above the maximum specified for the tanks operation. Although most of the tank has a double shell, the waste is now within 24 inches of a level where there is only one wall.
Stephen Agnew, a long time chemist with Hanford e-mailed a colleague: "Its amazing that the level has reached 435 inches and no one has freaked out yet." Said Leo Duffy, who was the Department of Energy's chief environmental official under President bush: "The whole situation at Hanford is a reaction mode rather than a planning mode. I gather they're baffled by what's going on."
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