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Storage tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation (Photo: Philo Nordlund via Flickr)

Hanford Nuclear Waste Site at Risk of Hydrogen Explosion, Report Warns

Following report of leaks, nuclear safety board finds dangerous hydrogen build up in waste holding tanks

Lauren McCauley

Tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which sits on the Columbia River in Benton County, Washington face dangerous risk of hydrogen build up which could trigger an explosion of radioactive materials, a nuclear safety board announced on Monday.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board expressed these concerns in a briefing letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who sought the board's review ahead of next week's confirmation hearing for President Obama's Energy Secretary nominee Ernest J. Moniz—a known nuclear-hawk.

The board expressed concern over the potential for hydrogen gas buildup within the underground tanks, particularly those "double wall" tanks which contain the highly radioactive material that was previously pumped out of leaking single-shell tanks.

"All the double-shell tanks contain waste that continuously generates some flammable gas," the board said. "This gas will eventually reach flammable conditions if adequate ventilation is not provided."

Earlier this year, investigators found six single-shelled underground storage tanks leaking up to 1,000 gallons of radioactive sludge each year—a situation that noted theoretical physicist Michio Kaku called a "ticking time bomb." 

According to the Associated Press, officials have known about the explosive potential of the hydrogen gas build up and last fall the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recommended additional monitoring and ventilation of the tanks, which federal officials have been working to implement.

Federal officials have thus far evaded any long term, sustainable clean up of the 56 million gallons of highly radioactive material currently held at the former Manhattan Project site.

During their review, the board also noted that the waste treatment plant, which is currently being constructed for long-term waste disposal, faces serious technical problems which could lead to "chemical explosions, inadvertent nuclear reactions and mechanical breakdowns," the New York Times reports.

In an interview Tuesday, Wyden said that the board’s experts had raised “a serious question as to whether this plant is going to work at all.”

"The next Secretary of Energy - Dr. Moniz - needs to understand that a major part of his job is going to be to get the Hanford cleanup back on track, and I plan to stress that at his confirmation hearing next week," Wyden added.

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