Note: A sidebar article accompanied this story: "Washintgton citizens fight to save an aging Hanford reactor."

The Hanford bomb factory, built in secrecy at the end of World War II, has been called the most radioactive site in the Western hemisphere. After it closed in 1989, federal and state agencies promised to clean up the 560-square-mile chunk of desert along the Columbia River - a job that would require more than 80 years and at least $50 billion. But now, one of the largest toxic-waste cleanup efforts in the world could turn into a rush job.

This spring, the Bush administration announced efforts to "accelerate" the cleanup at Hanford: According to a Department of Energy spokesman, the agency will find "innovative ways" to get the job done 40 years ahead of schedule. Then, in early October, Hanford officials laid out plans to wind down the cleanup of Hanford's most contaminated areas by 2006.

These efforts, which have their roots in an Energy Department rule issued under the Clinton administration, have made nuclear watchdogs, Native American tribes and the state of Washington skeptical. Geoff Fettus, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says Energy Department officials are trying to "cover over a problem and leave it for the future to deal with, rather than dealing with it themselves."

What's in a name?

The key conundrum at Hanford involves 177 underground tanks, each about the size of the U.S. Capitol dome. They hold a brew of nuclear weapons byproducts and have already leaked more than 1 million gallons into the soil and the Columbia River (HCN, 9/1/97: Radioactive waste from Hanford is seeping toward the Columbia).

Federal law requires that the Energy Department remove 99 percent of the high-level waste from Hanford and bury it in a deep geologic repository, such as Nevada's Yucca Mountain. The agency already has plans to pump some of the liquid waste out of the tanks, turn it into glass logs, and ship it off site. But the tanks will still be left with a highly radioactive crust.

That, says Energy Department spokesman Eric Olds, is where the challenge lies: "Once you've removed all of the waste out of the tanks - or as much of the waste as you can - do you go back in and literally attempt to scrub it out?" Olds asks. "Or can you stabilize the residual waste, and then perhaps do some sort of cap over the top?"

This shortcut may be the route of choice, thanks to a 1999 Energy Department order which allows its officials - without any outside approval - to reclassify some "high level" waste as less strictly regulated "incidental" waste. At Hanford, as well as two other sites in Idaho and South Carolina, the agency plans to use this order to apply less stringent standards to the cleanup of some materials inside its waste tanks. According to Energy Department documents, these reclassified wastes don't warrant disposal in a geologic repository "because of their lack of long-term threats to the environment and man."

Fettus, who is representing environmental groups and the Yakama Indian Nation in a lawsuit to block the reclassification effort, says the Energy Department is rewriting the rules so it can walk away from lethal waste in hard-to-reach places. "The department has awarded itself the authority to reclassify or rename essentially any material it can't get out of the bottom of the tanks," he says.

A matter of ethics

While each side prepares its legal arguments - the case will be heard before a federal court in Idaho early next year - the dispute raises questions about whether 50 years of nuclear contamination can ever be cleaned up.

"It's pretty obvious that we cannot in any way really restore Hanford," says Greg Dash, a physics professor at the University of Washington. "The best we can do is to fence it off and consider it to be a national sacrifice area."

This doesn't sit well with those who live nearby. In the 50 years since Hanford was built, the Yakama Indian Nation has been denied the ancient hunting and fishing rights it holds on the land. To make matters worse, a recent EPA report found that the Yakama and other Northwestern tribes are 50 times more at risk for cancer than the general public (HCN, 9/16/02: Toxic fish taint tribal diet). While the cause hasn't been pinpointed, the radioactive leaks from Hanford's tanks are a prime suspect.

"We do not know just exactly how our health is affected," by living near Hanford, says Russell Jim of the Yakama Indian Nation, "whether our gene pool has been changed, whether or not the high rate of cancer that's now showing here and the mutations of some of our children (are) a result from Hanford."

But the questions surrounding Hanford's cleanup go beyond science. For some, a thorough cleanup of Energy and Defense Department wartime messes is a matter of ethics.

"They were allowed to operate in secrecy, with no accountability, spending about $5 trillion of taxpayers' money, and now we're left with the hangover," says Tom Carpenter, head of the Seattle chapter of the nonprofit watchdog group, Government Accountability Project. "The hangover is the worst contaminated sites in the world, that will remain so for literally tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of years."


Krissy Clark is associate producer of Radio High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Geoff Fettus, Natural Resources Defense Council, 202/289-6868;
  • Eric Olds, DOE's Hanford, Office of River Protection, 509/372-8656;
  • Tom Carpenter, Government Accountability Project, Seattle, 206/292-2850.