Hanford Nuclear Nightmare | 1943 – Now

53 Million Gallons of Leaking Radioactive Waste

New Leaks At Hanford


The 586 sq. mile Hanford nuclear facility is where the government manufactured plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1943 to 1987. Today there are millions of gallons of highly toxic* nuclear waste stored there, and the containers are leaking.

The Hanford site includes more than 53 million gallons of high-level liquid waste in 177 underground storage tanks, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, 12 tons of plutonium in various forms, about 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste, about 270 billion gallons of groundwater contaminated above drinking water standards. 67 tanks have confirmed leaks. It’s all spread out over about 80 square miles, more than 1,700 waste sites, and about 500 contaminated facilities.

In the year 2000, Bechtel, the same company that was so helpful in Iraq, was given a contract to clean up Hanford. Note, if you will, that CEO Riley P. Bechtel was appointed in March 2003 to be a member of President Bush’s Export Council and draw any conclusions you wish. There have been a lot of screwups since, but the $ billions keep pouring in to Bechtel no matter how bad its record is. It’s nice work if you can get it.

So far, only about 1 million gallons of contaminated waste have leaked into the groundwater from the 65 year old underground tanks, and the plume hasn’t even reached the nearbyColumbia River yet. So the million or so people in the area don’t have to worry. And why would you live near a leaking nuke plant anyway…?

The DOE has only been working on the challenge for about 30 years, so there is hope that the mess will get cleaned up sometime in the 21st century. But really, probably not, what with the delays and all. One of the first delays was because the government underestimated the specs on the new waste storage building, a detail which soon halted construction. The initial warnings didn’t stop Bechtel from beginning construction and running up bills, but let’s be reasonable: Riley Bechtel is a friend.

Bechtel has also been a bit lax with the piping in the “black cells. Those are the areas of the treatment plant that will be so radioactive over the next 40 years that no human will be able to enter to make repairs. To perform such tasks fixing as leaking pipes, for example.

The current plan is now to pump out those underground tanks into a building that hasn’t been built yet, then convert the toxic liquid into glass logs. That process will begin in 2018.

Meanwhile, internal DOE and Bechtel documents indicate a series of problems with a special tank for processing or scrubbing the nuclear waste. The problems began when Bechtel hired an outside vendor to build it, but when the tank arrived at Hanford it had “cracked stay welds.” They were fixed. But then “different types of weld defects” were discovered. Bechtel went ahead and installed the scrubber tank anyway.

Radioactive contamination in public areas surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Site is higher and more geographically widespread than previously thought. Organizations such as the Government Accountability Project GAP, Boston Chemical Data Corporation and Radio Activist Campaign have issued a study that includes the first reports of plutonium in clams and fish in the Columbia River.

The GAP/BCDC report includes evidence that radiation levels in mulberry trees are higher than previously reported, and that strontium-90 has entered the ecosystem in high levels. According to the report, the mulberries themselves may be contaminated. In addition to plutonium being found for the first time in fish, increased levels of strontium, mercury, beryllium, uranium, and cesium were detected in aquatic creatures. Rodent scats from the test area showed greater than 13-fold elevated levels of strontium 90 compared to downstream areas, indicating that the material has entered the food chain for higher organisms.

In early 1943, the War Department decided to locate some Manhattan Project operations in the semi-arid southeastern section of Washington. Because this was top secret, all of the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford were told to evacuate their homes and abandon their farms. They were given thirty days and a minimum amount of money to accomplish this life changing task.

The federal government began construction at the Hanford Nuclear plant located in south-central Washington State in the spring of 1943. Within 18 months it had begun operation of the world’s first production-scale nuclear reactor. During World War II’s Manhattan Project, a total of three nuclear reactors and two chemical processing plants were built and operated at Hanford. These facilities produced the plutonium that was used in the world’s first nuclear explosion, the Trinity test in New Mexico in 1945 and the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki later that year.

The United States Government has paid billions of dollars to private contractors to oversee the production of nuclear weapons’ materials. These contractors include DuPont and General Electric. In the process, vast quantities of nuke pollution, especially iodine-131, were discharged into the air – more than half a million curies** in 1945 alone. The unfortunate inhabitants of the area, who had no idea what was going on (see downwinders), were exposed to airborne radiation in their food, especially milk from goats or cows that grazed on contaminated vegetation.

However, the government officials did know what was going on. Health officials for the Manhattan Project knew as early as the spring of 1943 that the ingestion of stable, nonradioactive iodine could protect both workers and the public from Iodine-131 exposure. One of these early health officials was Dr. W.D. Norwood, who later served as Hanford’s medical director.

Nevertheless, it was not until 1948 that crude filters were installed on the plant stacks, which did little to stop the radioactive materials and hazardous chemicals spewing into the air and into the Columbia River. Some of these releases were in the form of “hot radioactive particles” that contained plutonium, ruthenium, strontium and cesium. Hanford tracked these particles as far as Idaho, and even into Montana.

As the Cold War continued, Hanford added eight additional reactors and processing plants to the nuclear reservation. They used the river water to cool the intense heat at the core of the reactors. The water became contaminated with radioactivity, toxic chemicals and excessive amounts of heat, causing radiation to concentrate in the bodies of fish and game animals. Locals were then exposed when they ate the fish or game, drank the water or swam in the river.

Since 1986, several million pages of Hanford documents have been made available to the public. While much has been learned from this material, many important questions remain. The government has admitted that it has more than seven billion pages that have not been released about the operations of Hanford and the other nuclear weapons plants. Nice reading for a winter night…or on a glowing beach.

**For reference: the Three Mile Island accident released about 20 Curies.

* A cupful would kill a roomful of taxpayers in a few minutes.


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