Hanford Nuclear Reservation: Big problems at nation's #1 dump, but stimulus funds speed cleanup

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Maybe it was the post-Earth Day glow, or perhaps the prospect of a long-delayed vacation. But today when I and colleagues from the Society of Environmental Journalists visited the most contaminated site in North America, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, I was surprised by the amount of progress that has been made on cleanup.

Now, there's no doubt that Hanford is still a mess. The project is starting to look like it will cost roughly twice as much and take roughly twice as long as originally estimated, as Karen Dorn Steele established on our tour. There's been no shortage of screwups and missteps in the cleanup process. Radioactive waste is leaking into the only part of the Columbia River that still flows naturally, onto the spawning grounds for that so-very-rare commodity on the Columbia, a healthy salmon run.

And, of course, there’s the seemingly never-ending quest to build what has begun to sound like a figment of someone’s imagination: A plant that encases the worst of the wastes in a glass-like substance for longterm storage. Now it’s supposed to be done in 2019. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Plus, let’s not forget just how bad the damage was: 80 square miles of groundwater laced with the likes of strontium, tritium, uranium, hexavalent chromiumand uranium. Not to mention the non-radioactive hazardous waste. At the height of production of plutonium for nuclear bombs, Hanford was drawing 32,000 gallons of water per minute from the river, and dumping it back with basically no treatment, contaminated.

To give you an idea of how bad the problem is at Hanford today, look at the federal budget: Hanford’s normal $2 billion allocation – doubled this year by stimulus funds – dwarfs the entire Superfund budget, which President Obama is trying to raise from $605 to $1.3 billion. So, no, I’m not trying to say all is well at Hanford. Just that they are making some progress.

Me and my colleagues on the SEJ board of directors knew coming in that there are plenty of problems at Hanford. And we knew that we’d get the Department of Energy’s upbeat version of events on our tour. But I have to say that I still was surprised at the amount of progress DOE and its contractors can point to, with a major boost on the way because of federal stimulus funding.

For example, they’re saying the entire Columbia River corridor – basically all the contaminated lands outside the reservation’s ultra-polluted Central Plateau – is expected to be cleaned up by 2015. Just today we witnessed the delivery of bright blue filtering machines that will clean pumped-up groundwater on its way to the Columbia. Remediation of the river corridor is halfway done.

When cleanup began in 1989, the mess was colossal: 53 million gallons of waste in 177 underground tanks (and some of these containing truly putrid mixtures, with radioactive and hazardous wastes and solvents and so forth, some in combinations probably never replicated elsewhere.) There were about 800 individual waste sites. Some 70,000 drums’ worth of plutonium-contaminated waste was buried or stored at the reservation.

Today all the liquids have been removed from the underground tanks, with 12 tanks partly or totally emptied. About 475 of the 800 waste sites near the river have been cleaned up. Nearly 50,500 drums’ worth of waste have been retrieved.

And the folks at Hanford are trying some interesting cleanup techniques. For example, workers have put iron filings underground that help neutralize hexavalent chromium in the groundwater passing through on its way to the river.

Now, the 75-square-mile Central Plateau is a different story altogether. We saw the massive hole in the earth where low-level waste is being buried. This is where the cleanup now promises to stretch as long as 2050. Still, reservation-wide, we heard, all but 10 square miles of the plateau is scheduled to be cleaned up .

So you can see why folks around here are beginning to look over the horizon, to a time when the long cleanup is over. They’re making plans for how to keep the economy afloat the end of  three-quarters of a century of massive federal outlays in south-central Washington.

And you know what? With all these brainiacs congregated here in the windy, sunny Tri-Cities, they’re sponsoring something called the Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative seeks to turn 20 square miles of Hanford into a center to spur energy technologies that don’t cause global warming. That's got some possibilities.

Of course, folks around here aren’t just thinking solar and wind – they’re also big on nuclear. How odd, that in a place so thoroughly stung by the nuclear technology, people still dote on it.

A final fun historical  fact related by DOE’s Geoff Tyree, one of our tour guides, when I asked about how it was possible for the government to keep the nuclear technology secret here during World War II:

When the Manhattan Project was on and the federal government built a city and a massive industrial complex out in this shrub-steppe high desert, only a handful of key people actually knew what the end product was supposed to be. Workers, of course, knew they were assigned to do. But they didn’t know what was going on elsewhere around the reservation. And all of the workers were forbidden to discuss any of what was going on at Hanford.

So for years lots of people knew the government had moved them to this place and was paying them a good wage. But the mystery -- what are we doing here? -- had to be unbearable. Then came the dawn of the nuclear age. After either a nuclear test or the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the secret was out. The headline in the local paper, the Tri-City Herald:

 “It’s bombs!”

You gotta love a copy editor who gets to the point.

-- Robert McClure