Is US Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry smart enough to engineer a coverup of a massive radiation leak in the state of Washington, or is he being kept out of the loop by other department officials, or is there really “nothing to see here”?
My guess is the middle scenario, based on the likelihood that Perry couldn’t care less about knowing what is going on as to storing the country’s nuclear waste or how “his” department responds to urgencies.
But first, let’s back up a bit. What is now generally referred to merely as the “Hanford Site”, was built as part of the Manhattan Project, and in the mid-1940s, it included the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor where plutonium for the world’s first nuclear bomb was manufactured. As nuclear weapons’ development mushroomed during the Cold War, Hanford was expanded to include
eight additional nuclear reactors, and the site produced the bulk of the plutonium used in the entire US nuclear arsenal, said to at one time number over 60,000 weapons. The Hanford Site has a long history of failures, however, and over the years unknown amounts of radioactive material have escaped into the air and into Washington State’s rivers. With the end of the Cold War and the end of nuclear weapons’ production, reactors were decommissioned, leaving the site with 53 Million gallons of high-level radioactive waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste and 200 square miles of land with contaminated groundwater, in all amounting to two-thirds of the high-level radioactive waste existing in the United States, making Hanford the most contaminated nuclear site in the country.
Over the last several years, three things have become known about Hanford: 1) It is the site of the largest environmental cleanup in the US; 2) Leaks, of generally unknown duration and danger, are occurring and continue to occur with a frequency that should be frightening to not just every resident of the Pacific Northwest, but to government officials charged with their protection from nuclear calamity and 3) The site continues to include an operating nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station, which year after year continues to increase production, now producing 10% of the electricity consumed in the state of Washington.
“Decommissioning” has a very interesting meaning to nuclear power executives, and how that was defined and put into operation at Hanford should also be frightening to the public. At Hanford, it was decided during the reagan and george h w bush administrations that the method to be used was to “entomb” (or “cocoon”, the alternative term) the site’s reactors. During the george w bush administration it was decided by the Dept. of Energy to add to the area’s “cocoons” the nuclear reactors from 114 nuclear submarines.
Just what does it mean to “entomb” or “cocoon” nuclear material? That’s easy, it’s just what it sounds like, basically covering it all up with a material that the “experts” believe will be structurally secure
and last a lifetime, generally meaning concrete, layer after layer of concrete. Of three methods of decommissioning nuclear sites, this is the least used, after dismantling and what is called “safe enclosure”.
At Hanford, this is what appears to have been done. Solid waste was buried either directly into the ground or in steel drums or wooden boxes. Liquid waste was poured either directly into the ground or into trenches or holding ponds, or into underground storage tanks. Buildings were bulldozed, including some that contained asbestos. Perhaps the most dangerous solid waste found, spent fuel rods taken out of the reactors, were moved to what was called the Hanford Canister Storage Building. While barriers of some sort or another were placed into the ground surrounding areas where liquid waste was dumped, efforts as the chemical removal of contaminants was not alway successful, and contamination has reached the state’s rivers, including the Columbia. Records of what was buried where and how pretty much do not exist.
One primary emphasis at Hanford, however, was the construction of concrete tunnels, aimed at achieving part the desired “entombing” effect. Tunnels as long as 1700 feet were created, also covering railroad tracks and hundreds of railroad cars containing even more radioactive waste. The plan was to pump a slurry of grout into the cars, sealing in the radioactivity and allowing their removal and transport to Hanford’s primary Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility. However, that plan was scraped when it became clear that their removal was an extreme worker safety hazard.
For years, Hanford has had reports of leaks, including major tank leakage, such as that which occurred in 2013. As reported by CBS News in Feb. 2013, at least six of the 177 massive underground storage tanks containing liquid radioactive waste were leaking, some causing as much as 300 gallons of contaminants to be released per year. These tanks were decades old, far exceeding their anticipated life span which was 20 years. Official word from the Dept. of Energy was that there was no immediate health risk involved.
But now this year reports have been of tunnel collapses and a whole new type of possible exposure. Reports have varied greatly, but it appears that a 400 square foot hole in one of the tunnels was discovered early this month, with Dept. of Energy statements released to the effect that the hole was filled with soil and that no injuries occurred and no radioactive material escaped. Further reports were that the hole could have been present for several days before its discovery. Then in late May, radioactive contamination and the possibility of new, additional leaks of radioactive materials have been discovered, with the release of information that robots being used at
the site have been detected with high radiation readings, and that the clothing of workers have similarly been found to register contamination levels. Officially, no further dangerous readings were said to have been found, workers were returned to regular duty, and “All if well” proclamations have been the order of the day, at least as far as the Dept. of Energy is concerned. However, Washington governor Jay Inslee and state energy and ecology department officials have called for immediate and completed investigations by the federal government.
Over the last few years, about one-third of the Dept. of Energy’s $6 Billion of funds used for nuclear cleanup nationally has been spent on Hanford, while Hanford officials have requested $3.5 B. The proposed trump budget presented to Congress this month cuts the funds earmarked for Hanford by $120 Million for the coming year.
Late last year, NBC News did a story on the Hanford site, calling it “Welcome to ‘the Most Toxic Place in America” and describing that, despite official pronouncement of the safety of the area to residents and workers alike, studies and real life stories told a far different tale. Calling the area a “Chernobyl waiting to happen”, 20 studies were described documenting 24 years of safety risks including one from 2014 that found “toxins in the air ‘far exceeding occupational limits’ and a ‘causal link’ between vapor exposure and lung and brain damage.”
NBC documented the cases of numerous workers suffering from dementia, memory loss, neurological symptoms, breathing problems, and much more. These workers all related being told by Dept. of Energy and contractor personnel, that “the readings for harmful materials were safe”.
The Hanford site employs hundreds of workers, and it is in close proximity to thousands of residents and to major waterways that transverse not just the state of Washington, but the Pacific Northwest, and Hanford is a mere 171 miles from Seattle. Cut the cleanup budget? NO! A full cleanup is essential at whatever the cost, before millions of people are sickened and perhaps die.