Hanford nuclear waste: Proposed storage site prompts new criticism

(CBS News) The government may have an answer to the growing nuclear waste problem in Washington State. But now, that solution may be creating problems of its own.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the nation's largest and most contaminated waste site. Barrels that should have been put out of service 50 years ago are still in use, and they are leaking.

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After touring the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the best way to deal with the leaking nuclear waste is to send some of the toxic material somewhere else.

"Frankly, it's the only option other than just to allow this material to leak into the topsoil of the State of Washington for decades," Inslee said.

The U.S. Department of Energy is now trying to determine if waste from the leaking underground tanks is safe enough to transport to a permanent storage facility in New Mexico, 1,500 miles away. If approved, it's a process that could take years.

And even then, the Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, can't guarantee the plan will prevent any further leaks. Tom Fletcher, a tank farm assistant manager at the Department of Energy, said, "There's a lot of variables that goes into what is a leak, and where's it coming from. And can I declare that I know where it's at or what it's doing? The answer is absolutely not, it's underground."

Sending some of the radioactive sludge to the waste isolation pilot plant near Carlsbad, N.M., would only be a short-term solution to deal with approximately five percent of the 56 million gallons of nuclear waste at the site.

Inslee said, "This is a known technology that we have confidence in and does not present any additional risk."

But there is already opposition: in a statement, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said his state's permit for the Carlsbad facility "specifically prohibits waste from Hanford, so any proposal to change that would need strong justification and public input."

The Department of Energy says the current leaks pose no immediate threat because they're still 250 feet from reaching the groundwater supply. But officials admit the new project could be seven years from completion.

For Carter Evans' full report, watch the video above.

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