WASHINGTON - Radioactive sludge has long been leaking from a nuclear site less than 10 kilometers from one of the West Coast's biggest rivers, and no one seems to care.

According to Tom Carpenter, director of environmentalist organization Hanford Challenge, this virtual media blackout should come as no surprise. The consequences of the leak will only be visible on the long term: “It will be a burden for the future generations,” he says.

The Hanford nuclear site is well known to environmentalists: it is one of the oldest such facilities in the U.S., and was one of the two World War II Manhattan Project plants (with Oak Ridge, Tennessee) where the plutonium used for the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs was manufactured.

Hanford is a massive site that spreads over 1,500 square kilometers, 250 kilometers southeast of Seattle, Washington. “It is the most contaminated site in the whole country,” says Carpenter.

“Two-thirds of the U.S.’s nuclear waste is stored here,” says Carpenter. Since the plant was shut down in 1987, Hanford has become the symbol of the difficulties in the treatment of nuclear waste on the long term, especially at a time of budget cuts.

After the plant was decommissioned, the federal government and the state of Washington both agreed to clean up the site but encountered many problems. On Feb. 22, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, announced that at least six underground tanks containing highly radioactive matter had started leaking. Earlier statements by the Energy Secretary Steven Chu only mentioned one defective tank.

“The secretary (Chu) is very clear that there is no imminent public health threat with these leaks,” Inslee was quick to tell reporters.

Tom Carpenter doesn't disagree – in the short term.  No contamination has been detected in the Colombia River. But on the long term, he says, it's a different matter – plutonium has a half-life of 250,000 years.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, as it is called, was built in the 1940s with not much thought to contamination. Out of 177 tanks containing 200,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive sludge, 149 are single-shelled and a third have already experienced leaks, according to Carpenter: “378 million liters have already leaked from the tanks, a record for the U.S.”

A dirty bomb

Since it was decommissioned, the former military facility has been the subject of the largest environmental cleanup operation the country ever seen. To prevent plutonium from leaking into the ground, scientists recommend immediate decontamination but the new High-Level Waste Facility that will be used to “vitrify” the radioactive waste into big cylinders that will be buried, won't be operational until 2019.

In the meantime, neither local nor federal authorities want to invest in a temporary solution. Even though, “there is still time to collect the toxic sludge leaking from the tanks,” says Carpenter.

One of the problems is the political context on nuclear regulation. The Energy Department is dragging its feet to the point that the Washington State decision makers are finding it very difficult to obtain any information on what is really happening at Hanford. “The Energy Department owns this site and sets its own rules. They simply don't want to spend any money,” says Carpenter.

As for Congress, “It hasn't paid any attention to the Hanford situation in ten years and has never asked for a hearing.” Ron Wyden, the new senator of the neighboring state of Oregon wants to change the situation. After visiting the Hanford site, he announced that he would ask for an audit at the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

While the announcement of new leaks did not make the front pages, local inhabitants are growing only more upset. “If a terrorist had dropped the dirty-bomb equivalent of this much radioactive material onto a major city, the entire country would be mobilized,” wrote a Seattle Times reader.

Another wrote: “Al Qaeda should save its time and money and forget about us. We’re going to kill ourselves before they do. No one seems to know what’s really going on at Hanford or how to handle the mess.”