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A radioactive waste tank is leaking at the Hanford nuclear reservation in the state of Washington.

That means if one tank is leaking questions arise about the integrity of similar tanks at south-central Washington nuclear site, which now puts more emphasis on the federal government to resolve construction problems with the plant going up to alleviate environmental and safety risks from the waste.

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The tanks, which are already long past their intended 20-year life span, hold millions of gallons of a highly radioactive sludge left from decades of plutonium production for nuclear weapons.

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) said liquid levels are decreasing in one of 177 underground tanks at the site. Monitoring wells near the tank have not detected higher radiation levels, but Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the leak could be in the range of 150 gallons to 300 gallons over the course of a year and poses a potential long-term threat to groundwater and rivers.

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“I am alarmed about this on many levels,” Inslee said at a press conference. “This raises concerns, not only about the existing leak … but also concerning the integrity of the other single shell tanks of this age.”

Inslee said the state received word years ago the federal government fixed the problems and he warned that spending cuts would create further risks at Hanford. Inslee said the cleanup must be a priority for the federal government.

“We are willing to exercise our rights using the legal system at the appropriate time. That should be clear,” Inslee said.

Inslee said the state has a good partner in Energy Secretary Steven Chu but that he’s concerned about whether Congress remains committed to clean up the highly contaminated site.

The tank in question contains about 447,000 gallons of sludge, a mixture of solids and liquids with a mud-like consistency. The tank, built in the 1940s, did leak in the past, but they stabilized it in 1995 when all liquids ended up pumped out.

Inslee said this tank is the first one they have found to be losing liquids since workers stabilized all Hanford tanks in 2005. His staff said the federal government is working to assess other tanks.

At the height of World War II, the federal government created Hanford in the remote sagebrush of eastern Washington as part of a hush-hush project to build the atomic bomb. The site ultimately produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic blast and for one of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, effectively ending the war.

Plutonium production continued there through the Cold War. Today, Hanford is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site. Cleanup will cost billions of dollars and last decades.

Central to that cleanup is the removal of millions of gallons of a highly toxic, radioactive stew — enough to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools — from 177 aging, underground tanks. Many of those tanks have leaked over time — an estimated 1 million gallons of waste — threatening the groundwater and the neighboring Columbia River, the largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest.

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