YAKIMA, Wash. -- Six underground tanks that hold a brew of radioactive and toxic waste at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site are leaking, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday.
The leaks raise new concerns about delays for emptying the tanks at south-central Washington's Hanford nuclear reservation, and they strike another blow to federal efforts to clean up the site, where successes often are overshadowed by delays, budget overruns and technological challenges.
State officials just last week announced one of Hanford's 177 underground tanks was leaking in the range of 150 to 300 gallons a year, posing a risk to groundwater and rivers. So far, nearby wells haven't detected higher radioactivity levels.
The governor said the leaking material poses no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take a while -- perhaps years -- to reach groundwater.
Inslee traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to discuss the problem with federal officials. He said he received the "very disturbing news" during meetings Friday that six tanks are leaking.
"I think that we are going to have a course of new action and that will be vigorously pursued in the next several weeks," he said.
Inslee's comments came days after Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said the Hanford nuclear reservation -- and the challenges associated with ridding it of its toxic legacy -- would be the subject of upcoming hearings and a higher priority in Washington, D.C.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret project to build the atomic bomb, and the site went on to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal for years.
Today, it is the country's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades and cost billions of dollars. There are legal and ethical considerations to cleaning up the Hanford site at the national level, Inslee said, adding that he will continue to insist that the Department of Energy fully clean up the site.
He also stressed the state would impose a "zero-tolerance" policy on leaking radioactive waste into the soil.
The tanks hold some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste -- enough to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools -- and many of those tanks are known to have leaked in the past. An estimated 1 million gallons of radioactive liquid already leaked.
The tanks also are long past their intended 20-year life span -- raising concerns that even more tanks could be leaking -- though they were believed to have been stabilized in 2005.
Inslee said the falling waste levels in the six tanks were missed on graphs because only a narrow band of those graphs was evaluated, rather than a wider band that would have shown the levels changing over time.
"It's like if you're trying to determine if climate change is happening, only looking at the data for today," he said. "Perhaps human error, the protocol did not call for it. But that's not the most important thing at the moment. The important thing now is to find and address the leakers."
The government already spends $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup -- one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally. The Energy Department has said it expects funding levels to remain the same for the foreseeable future, but a new Energy Department report released this week includes annual budgets of as much as $3.5 billion during some years of the cleanup effort.
Much of that money goes toward construction of a plant to convert the underground waste into glasslike logs for safe, secure storage. The plant, last estimated at more than $12.3 billion, is billions of dollars over budget and behind schedule. It isn't expected to being operating until at least 2019.
Given those delays, the federal government will have to show that there is adequate storage for the waste in the meantime, Inslee said.
"We are not convinced of this," he said. "There will be a robust exchange of information in the coming weeks to get to the bottom of this."
Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber have championed building additional tanks to ensure safe storage of the waste until the plant is completed.
Wyden, whose home state neighbors the nuclear reservation, said after touring the site Tuesday that he shares their concerns about the integrity of the tanks, but that he wants more scientific information to determine it's the correct way to spend scarce money.