In 1990, Hanford transitioned from nuclear weapons production to environmental cleanup. The estimated cost of cleanup tops $100 billion. The political will to commit the necessary resources to stabilize the site is in doubt — especially with the onslaught of mismanagement and scandals resulting from inept bureaucratic control by the Department of Energy. DOE is an agency that was born in secrecy and shielded from accountability for most of its life.
Cleanup progress at Hanford has been slowed by technological and scientific gaps in our knowledge of how to handle many of the challenges, unsafe conditions for site workers, and DOE’s failure to request enough federal money to fund cleanup.
The legacy of Hanford’s plutonium production operations is a staggering quantity of high-level radioactive and chemical byproducts, the worst of which, an estimated 53 million gallons of nuclear waste, are stored in 177 underground tanks. A third of these tanks have leaked at least one million gallons of radioactive waste into the soil and the groundwater that feeds into the Columbia River.
At Hanford, most of the nation’s low level and transuranic (containing plutonium) wastes have been disposed of in hastily built and poorly designed trenches and ditches, many of which are being dug up for more proper disposal.
The contamination doesn’t stop with the soil. An estimated 80-200 square miles of contaminated groundwater underlies Hanford, the result of pumping about over hundreds of billions of gallons of contaminated liquids to the soil — an amount equal to the size of Lake Washington.
Less than 2% of the radioactivity at Hanford has been immobilized, and cleanup operations have only grown in cost and delay. Meanwhile, groundwater plumes of uranium, tritium, strontium-90, and various chemicals flow into the Columbia on an increasing basis.
The Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) is an important but troubled facility intended to stabilize the dangerous tank waste in glass logs. Vitrification, as the process is known, is the best available technology to stabilize radioactive waste. Sadly, the WTP has been plagued by design flaws, massive cost overruns, and doubts that it cannot operate effectively or safely.
It’s not all bad news. There has been progress. Spent nuclear fuel and sludge, millions of pounds of this intensely radioactive and dangerous material, was abandoned just 400 yards from the Columbia in leaky storage pools — the K Basins. Realizing the huge threat the waste in the K Basins posed to the river, the spent fuel was removed and put in dry storage, the sludge was vacuumed up, and the basins themselves are being removed to allow remediation of the contaminated soil underneath.
A KCTS Connects segment on Hanford cleanup progress and problems, featuring Hanford Challenge staff and produced with input from our organization. (Air date April 17, 2009)
A follow-up piece on KCTS Connects, focusing on thorium contamination and featuring viewer feedback. (Air date, April 24, 2009)