The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, along the Columbia River in Benton County, was built in our own back yard in 1943 to produce plutonium as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project.
It continued operation during America’s campaign to build the biggest nuclear weapons arsenal in the Cold War, as well as producing nuclear energy. The last reactor stopped operating in 1987. Hanford was added to the Superfund list for long-term hazardous cleanup in 1989.
Hanford’s 56 million gallons of the most contaminated nuclear waste in the western hemisphere is a true horror story.
There are 177 storage tanks holding this waste; 149 of these are older single-shell carbon steel tanks, some there since the 1940s. Many have a life span of merely 20 years. There is no surprise that tanks are decaying.
In February, officials announced that six single-shell tanks were leaking. These are not the first leaks; there have been decades of earth contamination.
The U.S. Department of Energy has owned Hanford since 1989. Bechtel National is contracted by DOE to oversee the construction of a vitrification plant. Vitrification means processing the waste into glass logs, which are then encased in stainless steel.
The decision was made to begin construction of the plant before the design had been vetted. Consequently, there are design problems that could lead to explosions or nuclear reactions.
The vitrification process is incredibly complicated and requires chemical and radiological analysis before pretreatment. One of the many problems is the lack of inventory of what toxic waste is where.
The 56 million gallons of waste make up any number of different shapes and denseness and so could be solid, liquid or gas. In many cases, waste has layered as it settled over time.
For the vitrification process to begin, consistency of the waste materials must be made and then kept uniform in order to be able to flow through pipes and filters without clogging. Clogging could result in enough plutonium collecting to trigger a nuclear chain reaction or backflow spreading the problem throughout the entire system. Currently, there is no design to do any of this effectively.
Another safety concern showing the mismanagement of Hanford is the potential for hydrogen gas buildup in double-shell tanks used to store waste removed from leaking single-shell tanks. Flammable gas builds up if there is insufficient ventilation, releasing radioactive material. Adequate ventilation is being used, but there is no backup plan.
Gov. Inslee supports sending three million gallons of Hanford’s waste to be stored in New Mexico. But environmental watchdog groups see the treatment process required to make this move as overly costly, time consuming and distracting.
Sure, it would be better for Washington if Hanford was anywhere else. But wouldn’t it be better to truly grasp how to make nuclear wastes safely and permanently stored — if possible?
Instead of going from one toxic mishap to another, it’s time for better oversight. Too little progress has been made over the years. Toxic waste must be stopped from entering our environment and threatening public health. Who is our champion?
President Obama and Congress, should they ever get off their politically divided arses, could create an oversight board with teeth of accountability. The federal government created this “nuclear pickle,” after all. It cannot be swept under the rug.
Senators Murray and Cantwell, et al., should be screaming at the tops of their lungs in outrage. Instead, it appears it’s up to us to make our voices heard. Surely they’d all want to hear from their constituents.
— Marylin Olds is an opinion columnist for the Kingston Community News. Comments are welcome at [email protected]