The US Is Playing a Dangerous Game of Musical Chairs With Nuclear Waste

K-East Reactor Hanford Nuclear Facility Remediation



But with limited tank capacity and at least sixteen years to go before the tanks can retire, this is still bad news. “It could hurt a great deal to lose a double shell tank capacity,” says Ken Niles, the nuclear safety division administrator for the Oregon Department of Energy. Worse still, this leaking tank could be a sign of problems to come with other double shell tanks.

Pumping radioactive sludge between tanks is complicated operation. “One of the most challenging areas is retrieving waste from the tanks,” says Niles. The work has to be done remotely because the tanks are seven to ten feet underground and accessible only through a foot-wide hole. Workers have to thread down equipment that can mix the radioactive solids and liquids to a pumpable consistency. (Without liquid to cool it, the remaining radioactive solids would also get too hot to handle.) Sometimes, they need to may need to pump in extra liquid from yet other tanks. Because of the way the tanks are connected, says Niles, moving waste between two tanks might mean a series of maneuvers involving six or seven tanks total.

As those tanks age, playing musical chairs with the waste is clearly not sustainable. Eventually, the US will need a permanent nuclear waste storage solution. Just don’t hold your breath—at least not until 2032.


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