Lethal and Leaking - CBS-TV 60 Minutes Report by Leslie Stahl
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Lethal And Leaking
April 27, 2006Quote"The chances of a catastrophic event over there are real. Time is not on our side. We need to get going."Gov. Christine Gregoire(CBS) The most contaminated piece of real estate in the Western Hemisphere is a site along the Columbia River in Hanford, Wash. The Department of Energy has been trying to clean up millions of gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste stored there for 16 years and has accomplished virtually nothing, says the state's governor.
Gov. Christine Gregoire says the waste poses a threat to the river and potentially to the people of the Pacific Northwest. Lesley Stahls report, which cites documents attesting to systemic problems in the Energy Department's oversight of the project, will be broadcast this Sunday, April 30 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
There are 53 million gallons of the waste, byproducts of the Cold War, buried in old underground tanks that have already leaked 1 million gallons into the ground, some of it heading right for the Columbia River. The waste is so lethal that just a cupful of it could kill everyone in a crowded restaurant, in minutes.
Gregoire says the cleanup is more urgent than ever. "The chances of a catastrophic event over there are real. Time is not on our side. We need to get going," she says.
One of the possible scenarios that worries Gregoire is a severe earthquake.
Among the energy Department's mistakes was miscalculating how strong some of the buildings designed to process the waste needed to be to withstand an earthquake. "In a building like this, you need to build it to ensure that it withstands whatever an earthquake may pose if there is one, because we absolutely do not want a breech of this radioactive material in the atmosphere," says Gene Aloise of the Government Accountability Office, Congresss investigative arm. Despite warnings as early as 2002 from an outside safety board that the design criteria were not stringent enough, the D.O.E. continued construction until 2005.
It turns out the outside safety board was correct and that thousands of designs will have to be re-engineered to ensure the buildings will be up to snuff. The extra cost to taxpayers? At least $800 million plus a delay of as much as four years in the plants start date. The Energy Department acknowledges that "mistakes were made," but vows that it is capable of handling the mammoth project.
However, Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project, a private watchdog group, is not so sure. He provided 60 Minutes with internal documents from the Energy Department and from the projects contractor, Bechtel, revealing what he calls a serious lack of oversight in ensuring that critical vessels used to dispose of the waste are built correctly. One tank was already installed before all of its deficiencies were discovered and fixed.
"The design flaws that led to this tank being deficient applied to 66 other vessels," Carpenter says. And it really raises a big question about, well, What have they not caught out there? What other equipment or tools, or machines, is installed, maybe under feet of concrete, that [Energy Department] programs failed to catch? asks Carpenter.
Charlie Anderson of Department of Energy says "I would agree that there are big mistakes here that we are taking control of and were correcting."
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Only On The Web: Lesley Stahl discusses her report on a contaminated area along the Columbia River in Hanford, Wash., that the government has been trying to clean up for 16 years.
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