What happens if we can’t clean up the mistakes of our nuclear past?
What happens if we can’t clean up the mistakes of our nuclear past? by Heather Hansman for Crosscut
The Hanford nuclear complex in eastern Washington lies in a green-gold sagebrush steppe, so big you can’t see the edges of it and shimmery in the summer heat. The only landmarks are low-slung buildings on the horizon and ancient sand dunes scrubbed bare when the glaciers melted. There’s almost no trace that this is the biggest nuclear waste dump in the country. The scale of nuclear waste is like that: sprawling out into the metaphysical distance, too big for the human mind to hold.
That’s what John Price tells me. He’s the tri-party agreement section manager with the Washington Department of Ecology, which regulates Hanford, the site of the country’s first plutonium production plant. (The other two parties are the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.) On a sweltering June evening, we stand on the edge of the site’s central plateau, wind buffeting our faces as we stare at the bony frame of the future vitrification plant. If you were to pull a shot glass full of liquid out of one of the tanks buried near us, it would kill everyone within 100 yards instantly. And the danger would not disappear: Plutonium, one of the components of that poisonous soup, has a half-life of 24,100 years. The plant is supposed to start processing the most toxic waste in 2036. But construction has stalled, and most of the waste sits in underground tanks, some of which have begun to fail. “Suppose all these things are starting to fall apart faster than we can clean them up,” Price says. “It becomes a really interesting moral question.”
Over the ridge north of us, the Columbia River curves around the site, appearing motionless until you get close and see how much water is pushing past the banks. Over the past year, a series of accidents has put the spotlight on Hanford, its aging infrastructure and the lack of a long-term solution. In May 2017, part of the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, which holds rail cars full of solid waste, collapsed. Later that year, workers tearing down the Plutonium Finishing Plant were contaminated with plutonium and americium particles when an open-air demolition went wrong. In December, others inhaled radioactive dust at the same site, halting work indefinitely. Then, in June of this year, the Department of Energy (DOE), which is responsible for the site, released a proposal to reclassify some of the high-level waste as less toxic, with what’s called a “Waste Incidental to Reprocessing” evaluation, so they could clean it up sooner and more cheaply.
“There’s a lot more work to do than there is money to get it accomplished,” Price said. “We’ve really come to a fork in the road.”
Across the country, big energy companies are considering a move from coal to nuclear-fueled plants even as sites like Hanford remain mired in many-decades-long cleanups of radioactive landscapes. As the possibility of more waste looms, Hanford has become a flashpoint for people who fear that there’s no safe way to deal with our nuclear legacy. In this era of climate change and large-scale environmental degradation, the site raises the question: Can we ever clean up the mistakes of our past?
IN FEBRUARY 1945, Col. Franklin Matthias, the eager young civil engineer who directed construction of Hanford, took a train to Los Angeles to hand-deliver the first 100-gram plutonium plug fabricated at the site to a courier from Los Alamos, New Mexico. It would become the core of bombs like the Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki that August. As he handed off the hockey puck-sized object, he told the courier it cost $300 million to make.
The production of those pucks would prove to cost far more than even Matthias could have calculated, mostly due to the radioactive detritus they left behind. The Government Accountability Office estimates cleaning up Hanford could total more than $100 billion. Since 1989, when Hanford was first designated as a Superfund site, 889 buildings have been demolished, 18.5 million tons of debris have been put in controlled landfills, and 20 billion gallons of groundwater have been treated. With three decades of work, the scope of the problem has been greatly reduced, but the really toxic stuff is still on site. The groundwater beneath Hanford is never going to be clean enough to drink, thanks to a cocktail of chemicals: strontium-90, which deteriorates marrow in the bones of humans and animals and takes 300 years to break down; hexavalent chromium, which mutates salmon eggs; and technetium-99, which dissolves like salt in water and has a half-life of 211,000 years.
The 586 square miles of sage still hold the 324 Building, home to highly radioactive nuclear containment chambers called hot cells, less than 1,000 feet from the Columbia and right across from the town of Richland, where many of the Hanford workers live. In the central plateau, where the ghostly vitrification plant stands, the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility holds 1,936 radioactive cesium and strontium capsules currently kept in a glorified swimming pool. If an earthquake were to crack the pool, or the water supply were to run dry, those isotopes, physically hot and linked to bone cancer, would spread quickly.