OLYMPIA — As most of official Olympia stared at their computers Thursday morning awaiting the state Supremes’ decision on tax supermajorities, a handful of legislators got a briefing on something with the potential for far more impact on the state.
Jane Hedges of the state Department of Ecology explained the intricacies of nuclear waste tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, doing her best to calm the uproar over recent news that six supposedly stable tanks are, in fact, leaking.
Trying to explain most Hanford things to laypersons can be a herculean task, once you get past the fact that there’s tons of really bad stuff down there from all the nukes we made for the Cold War but, thankfully, haven’t had to use. Hedges brought it down to a level that even legislators and reporters could understand.
First of all, the tanks are big, with the largest the size of a basketball court with a 75-foot wall around it. Inside the tanks are a “stew of different materials” forming radioactive sludge, from which the liquid was supposed to have been pumped out years ago.
The sludge is about the consistency of peanut butter, Hedges said, but sometimes the interstitial liquid rises to the top. The what? Think organic peanut butter, she said. When it sits too long, it gets that oil layer on the top.
Of the 177 tanks, 149 have only a single wall, or shell, and 67 of those were “suspected leakers,” but the rest were thought to be secure. With a container that big, a drop of even a fraction of an inch can represent many gallons.
Hedges explained there’s no easy way to get extremely accurate measurements because lowering cameras or instruments into the tanks isn’t practical. Instruments melt, rubber and plastic dissolve. The methods available showed some minor fluctuations that could have been anomalies until further testing showed six supposedly secure tanks are leaking as much as 1,000 gallons of radioactive liquid a year.
Getting the liquid out of the tanks is a problem. First, there’s no good place to put it right now, because the more secure double-shelled tanks are also pretty full. Second, there’s the danger of triggering evaporation, which would cause a tank to heat up and create a deflagration — “in common words, a boom,” Hedges said.
Hanford was responsible for making things that could create the world’s biggest booms, but a boom in a tank is to be avoided.
As chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, got to ask the question that many minds were forming: Is there a safety threat?
“There is no threat to anyone at this time,” Hedges said. The leaking tanks are between 200 and 300 feet above groundwater, at least five miles from the Columbia River. They’re leaking below ground, so there’s no immediate danger to workers or the nearby communities, and there’s a system to pump contaminated water out and clean it.
Long term, though, the state needs the feds to get the radioactive waste into a more permanent solution, she said.
The initiatives requiring a two-thirds majority for the Legislature to pass tax increases were popular but never quite hit 66.7 percent with voters. The state Supreme Court decision that said such a requirement takes a constitutional amendment did, with six of nine justices signing the majority opinion.
Spokane’s recent supermajority requirement for the City Council to pass a tax increase is unaffected by Thursday’s court ruling. Spokane made the change through a City Charter amendment, the municipal equivalent of an amendment to the state constitution. There was no supermajority required on the council’s decision to put it on the ballot, but six of seven members voted to do so.