Hanford’s radioactive nightmare
History of plutonium site[edit | edit source]
Hanford site is a 586 square mile (slightly more than 1,500 square kilometer) tract of restricted land in southeast Washington state, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It was launched in 1943, initially as a project of the United States government and the DuPont Company, for the development of U.S. nuclear weapons and the production of plutonium as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project.
That effort was pursued at multiple locations, resulting in the first atomic weapons and their use during World War II on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Richmond, Washington, was initially selected for its remote location, easy access – ironically – to clean water sources from the adjacent Columbia River, and plentiful hydropower energy supplied by the Grand Coulee Dam. It also needed to be isolated from human populations, so more than 1,500 people including farmers, ranchers and Native American communities were given a 30-day notice to leave lands that were claimed for the war effort.
Once the Hanford complex was built, plutonium production began. Scientists and researchers from across the U.S. were recruited to Hanford until the workforce was 51,000 strong – although most of them did not know precisely what their work was for. While the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan forced an immediate surrender that effectively ended World War II, the construction of plutonium processing facilities and reactors continued into the Cold War era. The last reactor built at Hanford also harnessed nuclear power to generate electricity, and was dedicated by then-President John F. Kennedy in 1963, just weeks before his assassination. It was the only dual-purpose reactor ever built in the U.S. and reflected the technology transfer from nuclear weapons production to domestic energy generation.
Hanford continued, however, to produce the plutonium used in some 70,000 U.S. nuclear weapons until 1988. When the last reactor was decommissioned, the cleanup began – a process that will take decades if it ever is completed, and one with an estimated price tag of more than USD$150 billion to achieve.
Tunnel collapse of May 2017[edit | edit source]
On May 9, 2017, a 20-by-20 foot (6 meter) section of roof collapsed into a tunnel used for storing nuclear waste below ground at the Hanford site. The radioactive waste was loaded into rail cars and buried in the wood and concrete tunnels beginning in the 1960s, beneath eight feet of soil. The collapse happened at the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX), a sprawling six-story building that goes 40 feet below ground, with walls of concrete six feet thick to shield radiation and 33 miles of pipes.
Some scientists believe that more plutonium was processed at PUREX than any other building on the planet, and it remains highly contaminated despite being vacant for almost 20 years. Authorities at Hanford and federal U.S. officials including Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said there was no release of radiation or toxic material during the incident, and it was managed by covering the breach with 50 truckloads of dirt. Additionally, the cave-in was covered in plastic weighted down with concrete blocks.
Any unforeseen long-term consequences of the incident remain in the future, but in 2016 the Harford Advisory Board, a body that provides policy recommendations on the daunting cleanup, said that Department of Energy officials “should expeditiously investigate potential risks posed by the PUREX tunnels.” The tunnel incident was touted as a wake-up call, but the facts prove otherwise. The state-level Department of Ecology questioned the structural integrity of the tunnels at least as far back as 1991, and issued a notice of deficiency and “questioned the advisability of leaving dangerous waste stored” in the tunnel on the basis, in part, of information obtained from a report completed in 1980.
By no means is PUREX the only concern, and other accidents have occurred. In perhaps the most high-profile case, employee Harold McCluskey survived for 11 years after a near-lethal dose of americium followed a chemical explosion in 1976. No one at Hanford even entered that room again until 2014.
Worker health and safety[edit | edit source]
Although McCluskey was known for the “Atomic Man” exposure at Hanford, he is just one of many employees experiencing serious ill health effects because of their work. The Department of Energy has acknowledged in nearly 20 studies conducted over the past 24 years that there is a safety risk to workers at Hanford. Some 56 million gallons of toxic waste are stored in 177 underground tanks at the facility, and at least 67 of those tanks are leaking. They were never designed to last more than 20 years.
Vapors that escape from the tanks are a known hazard; just two years ago, a report found toxins in the air "far exceeding occupational limits" and a "causal link" between vapor exposure and lung and brain damage. In addition to severe respiratory conditions and nervous system damage, a neuropsychologist working with affected workers has found severe cases of dementia in extraordinarily young people.
Since 1987, hundreds of workers have experienced nosebleeds, headaches, watery eyes, burning skin, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness and nausea. Some workers have suffered long-term disabilities, including the permanent loss of lung capacity. Some 1,500 different volatile chemical gases — many of which are highly toxic and known carcinogens — have been found in the tanks. Exposure to these chemicals is known to cause numerous harmful health impacts including lung disease, central nervous system suppression, nerve damage, and cancers of the liver, lung, blood, and other organs.
The watchdog group Hanford Challenge has documented 120 vapor exposure cases since 2015, but the vapors have affected workers since the 1980s with the first investigation in the early 1990s. There are three fatalities among the more recent cases, including a death caused by a progressive dementia believed to be linked to tank vapor exposure. Employees say they were often discouraged from using or outright denied access to personal protective equipment, and whistleblowers were punished or fired.
Among them was a contract physician who says he refused to look the other way or cook the books on employee health documentation. Dr. Loren Lewis, a physician with 30 years’ experience, says he was fired for standing up for the safety of workers routinely exposed to beryllium more than 10 years ago.
Disregard for Hanford worker safety became so egregious that the state attorney general filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2015. “I’m still waiting for an answer to my question: How many Washington workers need to get sick before the federal government solves this problem?” asked AG Bob Ferguson in May 2016. While air tanks have been provided to workers since, they say there’s no guarantee they will always have them – and it doesn’t address worker safety issues spanning decades.
Environmental impacts[edit | edit source]
The environmental hazard at Hanford is so enormous that workers are not the only ones affected. The leaking tanks present a radioactive contamination to soil and ground water, and toxins – radionuclides, hazardous chemicals and nitrates – are slowly making their way toward the Columbia River. Some radioactivity has been detected in the water at the Hanford site as well as downriver. Two radionuclides makes up much of the radioactivity: cesium-137 and strontium-90. Both take hundreds of years to decay, and exposure to either presents an elevated cancer risk. Nor are the leaks new; as early as 1956, workers suspected a tank was leaking, and 12 tank leaks were documented between 1959 and 1968.
At least 1 million gallons have leaked into the soil, and that is considered a conservative estimate. The Hanford website says “hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste” was generated during the years of plutonium production, and it was “disposed of by pouring them onto the ground or into trenches or holding ponds.” Spills occurred, and the record-keeping on toxins, their location and specific incidents is spotty, particularly in the early years. That’s also true of solid waste – broken equipment, contaminated clothing – that was buried in steel drums, wooden boxes or sometimes without any container at all.
Air quality was compromised as well. During World War II and the early Cold War years, Hanford intentionally released radioactive iodine into the air. New concern over airborne contamination results from the cleanup. There are 75,000 barrels of solid radioactive waste, including 2,300 tons of spent fuel rods stored under water tanks at two reactor sites, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Spent fuel rods exposed to air can burn, possibly spreading radioactive ash and particles. All told, there are 1,700 waste sites and about 500 contaminated buildings, according to the council.
Future of Hanford[edit | edit source]
The strategy to clean up Hanford includes a technique called vitrification, which converts liquid waste to a stable glass at high temperatures. A $12.3 billion facility is being built for the vitrification work. Once completed and converted into solid cylinders, the waste will be buried at a national repository. Less hazardous products will be taken to an Integrated Disposal Facility that is still under evaluation. Yet the future plant’s safety remains in question: Government reports warn of potentially catastrophic nuclear releases if the vitrification facility were to fail, and engineers have been fired for raising questions. What’s more, the deadline for having the vitrification plant completed has been pushed back to 2036.
The prevention of groundwater contamination in the Columbia River is based on several options that include semi-permeable barriers with purifying properties, as well as pumping out water for chemical treatment. Biostimulation that relies on microorganisms to neutralize toxins also has been considered – yet what’s clear is that there is no coordinated strategy to date, and no one is sure about outcomes.
Meanwhile, the closest tank sits five miles from the river, home to endangered fish and a source of drinking water for some 175,000 people immediately downstream.