Inside America’s Most Toxic Nuclear Waste Dump, Where 56 Million Gallons of Buried Radioactive Sludge Are Leaking Into the Earth
(October 4, 2019) — Sitting on 586 square miles of desert in Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most toxic place in America.
Buried beneath the ground, in storage tanks, are 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Many of them are leaking into the ground.
Hanford produced the plutonium to build Fat Man, the atomic weapon that was detonated above Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and for the United States’s nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
In 1989, after years of dismissing concerns about contamination, the reservation’s management finally admitted the site needed to be cleaned up. But cleaning up nuclear waste is difficult. It can’t be burned or buried. The plan is to build a waste management plant that will turn the waste into glass, which can be stored away for thousands of years. It’s a slow, costly process.
As The Daily Beast reported, “Hanford is the worst kind of mess: the kind that humanity is capable of making, but not capable of cleaning up.”
The longer the contaminated materials are left, the worse they become. Here’s what the nuclear reservation is like.
The last big earthquake in the area was in 1936. But another sizeable one could release radiation, like what happened with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.
The government wanted the site to be close to dams for electricity, and close to the river so it had a source of cool liquid to cool the reactors.
In 2017, the EPA said contaminated groundwater was flowing freely into the river.
Hanford played a vital part in the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was the government’s research and development program for nuclear weapons.
The government purchased the land in 1943, and gave about 1,500 people 30 days to leave.
Instead of the land being developed by farmers and ranchers, it’s been left untouched for 75 years, and wildlife has boomed. In 2000, former President Bill Clinton made the 195,000-acre area a National Monument.
In the area, there are herds of elk, Chinook salmon breed in stretches of the river in Autumn, and there is also an abundance of birds, including burrowing owls, Swainson hawks, and sagebrush sparrows.
It was the “B” reactor that produced the first plutonium in the United States. The first supply of plutonium was delivered to the army on February 2 1945.
While liquid waste is usually contaminated water or sludge, which is described as having the same consistency as peanut butter.
Scientists suspected it had eaten irradiated plankton contaminated from waste products that had floated down the Columbia River into the sea.
The plastic suit was nicknamed “Homer’s Hideous Hallucination.” Before that, the employees had to wear heavy clothing that had to be buried after being used once.
The tests were to try and work out what effect radiation would have on people. In 2007, 40,000 tons of dead animals and manure were uncovered from trenches in Hanford, including 18 alligators. Of the waste, 95% of it was contaminated manure.
When Hanford first produced nuclear waste, workers simply took contaminated clothes and tools and buried them in the desert, without recording where. This made the cleaning process difficult in the years to come, since the area is so large, and there’s no way for sure to know what’s buried where.
The first 149 tanks were built with a single-shell of steel. In 1968, officials developed a new double-shelled model, storing waste in 26 of them.
In 2010, Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, said enough plutonium was buried at Hanford to create 1,800 bombs the size of what was detonated on Nagasaki.
Strontium is also called “bone seeker” because it remains in people’s bones once ingested and increases their risk of getting cancer.
By then Hanford was no longer making plutonium. From the mid-1960s, reactors had been shutting down until the last one closed in 1987. It was exclusively a massive environmental hazard that needed to be cleaned up.
Management also said it would take 10,000 years before the waste would reach groundwater, but it had already reached it.
According to the New York Times, it was only after a million gallons of waste had leaked into the ground, which the Energy Department didn’t know how to fix, that it said more information was necessary. A year earlier, the plant fired an employee after he spoke about the issue “too vigorously.”
In 2000, wildfires threatened the complex, and Washington’s Department of Health reported a rise in plutonium levels in the area, although the levels were not life-threatening. The increase was thought to be spread by dust and ash. There have also been issues with radioactive wasp nests, fruit flies, and rabbits.
When radioactive rabbit droppings were found in the area, it was protocol to set traps to kill the rabbits.
When the Russian thistle decayed and broke from its roots, which could go 20 feet into the ground, the radioactive thistles could roll for up to four miles and spread nuclear radiation.
The treatment plant will turn the waste into glass, which can then be stored safely for several thousand years. It’s expected to convert more than 50 billion gallons of contaminated waste. But it’s not meant to begin processing until 2036, and it will takeyears to get through all of the waste.
It’s also been plagued with uncertainty around what form the waste will be in when it flows through pipes, which led to halting construction in 2012 until the issue could be sorted out.
In 2008, Columbia Kayak Adventures ran two to three tours each month, which The Los Angeles Times described as “a theme park next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.”
As for radiation on and in the river, health officials said fish tested for radiation posed no health risk, while environmental groups said there was a risk for people who regularly swam and fished in the river.
While management already knew that one tank was leaking, at a rate of up to 300 gallons of waste every year, the discovery that five more were also leaking was especially concerning.
As The Daily Beast put it, while nuclear sludge dripping into the soil and mixing with groundwater might sound apocalyptic to many people, to those familiar with Hanford it’s just another mishap, of which there have been many.
It was covered up again by workers and no contamination was detected, but the EPA said more tunnels would collapse as the equipment deteriorated.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said the cleanup wouldn’t be done for another 300 years if Trump’s budget goes through.
Trump’s administration also wants to reclassify high-level waste as low-level to cut costs.
He told The Atlantic in 2018 that the majority of Hanford’s waste was going nowhere. “Hanford is going to be a national sacrifice zone for hundreds of years,” he said.
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