Hanford — The most contaminated nuclear waste site in America

by Karen Graham

Located in central Washington state, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the largest nuclear waste dump in the Western Hemisphere. It has also become a major environmental issue for the United States, yet little is known about what is happening there.

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The N Reactor at the Hanford site, along the Columbia River. The twin KE and KW reactors can be seen in the immediate background, with the B Reactor in the distance. Photo taken in January 1960. 

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation (HNR) occupies an area of approximately 586 square miles in south-central Washington, along the Columbia River. To get an idea of just how big an area it covers, it is half the size of the state of Rhode Island. While little has been in the headlines of late, it is now making news in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

The HNR was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, and was home to the B Reactor, the first plutonium production reactor ever built. Plutonium made at this site was used in the first nuclear bomb tested at White Sands Proving Ground, then called the Trinity site, southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, as well as Fat Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in WWII.

Fat Man on transport carriage Tinian Island 1945. National Archives photo.
Fat Man on transport carriage, Tinian Island, 1945. National Archives photo.National Archives

During the Cold War, an additional nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium processing plants were constructed at Hanford. Of the country’s more than 60,000 nuclear weapons in our arsenal during the Cold War, most of the plutonium was manufactured at Hanford.

During that time, while many technological advancements were made by scientists working there, safety procedures and waste disposal practices proved to be inadequate. A lot of radiation escaped into the air and into the Columbia River. This has resulted in continuing problems that today still threaten the health of people living in the region and the ecosystem.

Hanford becomes the most contaminated nuclear site in America

Between 1964 and 1971, the plutonium weapons production reactors were decommissioned. Left behind were 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater underneath the site. Today, Hanford is the repository of 2/3 the nation’s radioactive waste, by volume, making it the most contaminated site in the country.

Underground tank farm with 12 of the site s 177 waste storage tanksUnderground tank farm with 12 of the site’s 177 waste storage tanks — Image #N1D0001315 at http://www5.hanford.gov/ddrs/index.cfm

One could fill a book just discussing the issue of the damage done with the release of radioactive isotopes into the air and water, especially to those people living downwind from the Hanford site, and to the Native Americans who live along the Columbia River and depended on it as a source of food. A mass lawsuit brought by 2,000 people living downwind from Hanford against the federal government has been in the court system for many years.

Our country has been involved in a massive cleanup of the site for years, and that is the main activity going on there. There is one commercial nuclear reactor, the Columbia Generating Station, and a few scientific laboratories and research and development centers on the site.

The cleanup begins

The Hanford site was divided into four sections on June 25, 1988. The EPA, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Energy department formed a tri-agency agreement to clean up the site. There were, of course several challenges to overcome, involving technical, political, regulatory, and cultural interests. While those issues are ongoing, the focus was on cleanup. It was decided the cleanup effort would focus on three issues: restoring the Columbia River by making it safe, converting the HNR to a long-term waste treatment and storage area, and making plans for the future.

B-Reactor in Operation at Hanford in the 1940 s. The Columbia River can be seen in the background.
B-Reactor in Operation at Hanford in the 1940’s. The Columbia River can be seen in the background.
U.S. Dept. of Energy

It was expected that the work of cleaning up and decontaminating the site would take about 30 years to complete. So far, the federal government has been spending about $2 billion annually, using around 11,000 people working to round up, clean up, and remove waste, contaminated buildings, and contaminated soil. By 2008, the job was less than half finished. Only one area of the four sections was deemed clean enough to release.

Major setbacks and leaks

Even if everything were to go well in the cleanup efforts, it will take decades before the Hanford site could be deemed safe, if ever. There are parts of the site that are still heavily contaminated, and they are a health risk to workers. The very worst was the 53 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks. Over a third of these single-shelled tanks were leaking, seeping nuclear waste into the soil and groundwater.

In 2008, most of the liquid waste was transferred into double-shelled storage tanks, leaving behind 2.8 million gallons of liquid waste and 27 million gallons of salt cake and sludge. What remained in those tanks was supposed to be removed by 2018, but the date has been revised and moved to 2040. In 2008, it was determined that over one million gallons of highly-radioactive waste-water was slowly moving toward the Columbia River. Based on figures quoted at that time, it would take 15-50 years.

One unanswerable question stymies everyone involved in the cleanup and has resulted in a great deal of heated debate, What to do with the plutonium? Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, and a decay of ten half-lives is required before a sample is considered to cease its radioactivity. This means it will remain radioactive forever. Thinking to make the plutonium more stable for storage, the Energy department hired a San Francisco, California-based engineering and construction company to build a vitrification plant.

Vitrification is a process by which hazardous wastes are combined with glass to make them stable. Bechtel, the company contracted to build the plant, began construction in 2001. The project was to be finished in 2011, and the vitrification completed by 2028. Almost from the start of construction, problems arose, both technical and managerial. By 2013, the cost of the project had risen to over $13.4 billion, with a scheduled start of operations in 2022. If all works out, it will take over 30 years to get the vitrification completed.

Leaking tanks and a closed-mouth Energy Department

In March of 2013, a story came out in the news about one of the 28 double-walled storage tanks at Hanford having a leak. Actually, the tank was discovered to be leaking in 2012. Subsequent inspections of the storage tanks found that six others had the same design flaw, leading to possibly additional leaks in the future. Now, questions about the storage tanks have put the cleanup in jeopardy.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee accompanied by Senior Advisor for Environmental Management Dav...Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, accompanied by Senior Advisor for Environmental Management Dave Huizenga, visits Hanford Tank Farms and Waste Treatment Plant on March 11, 2013.
Energy Department

The Energy Department has been very tight-lipped about the whole issue, as one reporter from OPB News in Hanford wrote on March 11, 2013: “I’d say we haven’t heard from the Department of Energy or Ecology on some very basic questions like: What is the plan? When did they know? When did they first suspect? When did they decide they were going to go public and when did they go public? I think that’s all really important information, and the public is just crying out. We want to know more about what’s in these tanks. I think those are really hard questions to answer. This is radioactive peanut-butter like sludge. It’s crazy, crazy stuff. It’s very hard to work on this.”

Tom Fletcher, assistant manager of the Hanford tank farms said on Friday the tanks used to be inspected every 5 to 7 years. That has been changed to every three years. The department is also in the process of inspecting the last eight of the double-walled tanks that hadn’t been inspected since the leak was found in 2012. He said no new leaks have been found. “If there are changes or improvements we need to make in the program, based on what we learn, to make sure we capture the risks that exist on the tank farms, we will make them,” Fletcher said.

In the meantime, we really can’t be too smug about the power plant mess in Japan. It looks like we are in the same leaky boat.


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