Lethal And Leaking

Deadly Waste Has Leaked Into Washington Groundwater

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, that's what critics accuse the U.S. Department of Energy of: making the same mistakes over and over in a project that has already squandered billions of dollars in taxpayers' money. But the risk here is far greater than financial, since it involves highly toxic nuclear waste.

At stake are millions of gallons of radioactive liquid waste left over from the making of nuclear bombs, including the one that was dropped on Nagasaki. This waste has been sitting in underground tanks in Hanford, Wash., ever since, while the government tries to figure out how to clean it up. As correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, the waste is so lethal that a small cup of it would kill everyone in a crowded restaurant, in minutes.

60 Minutes recently visited Hanford, where the witches' brew is being stored. Hanford, located along the Columbia River, is home to the most contaminated piece of real estate in the world outside of Russia.

It is contaminated by waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons. There are 53 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste stored in underground tanks that are now so old they have leaked one million gallons of the stuff.

Some of it leaked into the groundwater, and it's heading right for the river. With a million people downstream, there's a sense of urgency about cleaning up the site, which is huge. It takes up 586 square miles in southeastern Washington.

But for the Energy Department, which runs the project, it's been a case of easier said than done. In the nearly 16 years 60 Minutes has been covering this story, it's been one foul up after the next.

Charles Anderson, the Energy Department's official overseeing nuclear clean up, gave Stahl a tour of what has been built so far at Hanford, starting with a replica of the underground tanks.

"This is a model of tanks that are already built that have waste in them. Be careful with your head here as we go in," Anderson told Stahl during the tour.

The tank can hold 750,000 gallons of waste. Many of the tanks, built for the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons, are more than 60 years old.

Anderson explains there are a total of 177 tanks holding "high-level" waste at this site.

The plan is to pump the waste out of the tanks and route it through miles of pipes to a yet-to-be-completed pre-treatment facility. The idea is to convert the radioactive waste into glass logs.

"This is where the radioactive waste will come from the tank farms, will come from those tanks and will come in here and be treated in different chemical processes and be turned into glass logs for final disposition to be disposed of in a landfill," Anderson explains.

Stahl last visited the area in 2001, when the site was just a field. Anderson says significant progress has been made. "The plant's 35 percent complete in regard to construction," he says.

But the place is a total ghost town. What happened?

What happened here is that after three years of welding, pouring cement and laying miles of pipes and tons of steel, construction came to a screeching halt in 2005 because the Energy Department underestimated by 40 percent how strong the building must be to withstand an earthquake. We're talking about a building that would be full of radioactive liquid.