Northwest Digest

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Clogged pump leads to radioactive leak

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SPOKANE, Wash. - Trying to remove radioactive sludge that is thick as peanut butter clogged a pump and led to a spill at the Hanford nuclear reservation, officials said Tuesday.

Now workers are trying to determine how to clean the worst spill that Hanford's tank farm area has had in years.

"The release to the environment of this waste material is not acceptable," Delmar Noyes, of the U.S. Department of Energy at Hanford, told reporters during a conference call.

No workers were contaminated by the radioactivity and the spill was contained within a tiny area near the waste tanks, so it posed no threat to the public, Noyes said.

But the spill, which Noyes said was the largest in the tank farm in years, illustrates the difficulties of trying to safely dispose of nuclear waste that dates back to World War II and the Manhattan Project to build nuclear weapons. Hanford covers about 560 square miles in southcentral Washington near the Tri-Cities, and contains the nation's largest collection of nuclear waste from the production of weapons.

The spill was believed to have occurred early Friday, but was not detected until about 10 a.m., some seven hours later, Hanford officials said.

A Hanford watchdog group criticized the Energy Department for what it called a slow response to the leak.

"This latest leak of deadly waste illustrates the risks we face for decades to come," said Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest.

The waste from the bottom of the tank is so lethal "that a cup full of waste would kill everyone in a room in a short period of time," Pollet added.

Hanford officials contend they notified regulators in an appropriate fashion after the release was discovered.

Oil spill fund used for timberland purchase

GRANTS PASS, Ore. - A federal oil spill fund has been tapped for $15.5 million to buy nesting habitat for marbled murrelets, a threatened sea bird harmed by the 1999 grounding of the freighter New Carissa, officials said Tuesday.

The 3,851 acres in the northern Coast Range near Depot Bay was bought from Forest Capital Partners and Plum Creek Timber Co. and turned over to the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in Salem.

A third of the land, which Forest Capital was voluntarily protecting for murrelet nesting, is used by as many as 17 pairs of marbled murrelets for nesting.

A third will be managed to promote the large fir and hemlock trees favored by murrelets for nesting, and a third will be managed for timber to pay for the project, officials said at a press conference in Salem.

The 660-foot freighter New Carissa ran aground at the entrance to Coos Bay on Feb. 4, 1999, and spilled 25,000 to 140,000 gallons of fuel oil. The ship broke apart and the stern remains mired in the sand. As the bow was being towed out to sea, it broke lose and ran aground near Waldport before being towed to sea and sunk.

Ship owners settled a lawsuit by agreeing to pay $4 million for damages, but a group of trustees representing state and federal agencies and local Indian tribes went to the Coast Guard's National Pollution Fund for $15.5 million to buy the land.

Authorities estimate that 2,465 sea birds were killed or injured, including 262 marbled murrelets, whose threatened species status has forced reductions in logging old-growth forests where they nest.

U.S. briefs Russiaon missile defense

WASHINGTON - U.S. officials gave an intelligence briefing for a Russian delegation Tuesday on the threats the United States believes justify building a missile defense system in Europe.

Military and political officials from both sides discussed proposals for cooperation on an issue that has become the greatest source of tension in deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Rood, who led the talks Tuesday, said Russia recently accepted a U.S. invitation to view U.S. missile interceptors at a base in Alaska. The invitation and Tuesday's briefing were intended to answer Russian concerns about U.S. missile defense plans.

"I think there is a significantly better understanding on the Russian side about why we are pursuing a missile defense capability," Rood said after the presentation.

The United States has rejected Russian assertions that U.S. plans to build a radar system in the Czech Republic and station interceptors in Poland pose a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent.

The United States has said the system is aimed at countering missile threats from Iran and North Korea.

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