The Cold War’s nuclear legacy still leaches

Washington’s Hanford site is a lesson for politicians considering new nuclear weapons.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

Seventy-five years ago, in March 1943, a mysterious construction project began at a remote location in eastern Washington state. Over the next two years some 50,000 workers built an industrial site occupying half the area of Rhode Island, costing over US$230 million – equivalent to $3.1 billion today. Few of those workers, and virtually no one in the surrounding community, knew the facility’s purpose.

The site was called Hanford, named for a small town whose residents were displaced to make way for the project. Its mission became clear at the end of World War II. Hanford had produced plutonium for the first nuclear test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, and for the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

As a researcher in environmental and energy communication, I’ve studied the legacies of nuclear weapons production. From 2000 to 2005, I served with a citizen advisory board that provides input to state and federal officials on a massive environmental cleanup program at Hanford, now one of the most contaminated sites in the world.

As U.S. leaders consider producing new nuclear weapons, I believe they should study lessons from Hanford carefully. Hanford provides one of the more dramatic examples of problems that unfolded – and persist today – at nuclear sites where production and secrecy took priority over safety and environmental protection.

A nationwide nuclear network

Hanford was one of three large facilities anchoring the Manhattan Project – the crash program to build an atomic bomb. It was part of a larger complex linking facilities across the nation. A plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, enriched uranium and operated a prototype nuclear reactor. Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico assembled a cadre of world-class scientists to design and build the weapons, using materials produced at the other sites. Smaller facilities across the nation made other contributions.

As World War II phased into the Cold War and the U.S.-Soviet arms race escalated, new sites were added in Ohio, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Colorado and elsewhere. Secrecy masked much of the work at these sites until well into the 1980s, with serious consequences for public health, worker safety and the environment. Nuclear and chemical wastes caused severe contamination at Hanford and the other sites, and dealing with them has proved to be difficult and costly.

Major sites in the Cold War nuclear weapons production complex.

Contamination at Hanford

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the United States had mass-produced some 70,000 nuclear bombs and warheads. Hanford made most of the plutonium used in those weapons. Workers irradiated uranium fuel in reactors, and then dissolved it in acid to extract the plutonium produced. This method, called reprocessing, generated 56 million gallons of liquid wastes laced with radioactive and chemical poisons.

Hanford’s nine reactors were located along the Columbia River to provide a source of cooling water, and discharged radiation into the river throughout their lifetimes.

Fuel was sometimes reprocessed before its most highly radioactive isotopes had time to decay. Managers knowingly released toxic gases into the air, contaminating farmlands and grazing areas downwind. Some releases supported an effort to monitor Soviet nuclear progress. By tracking intentional emissions from Hanford, scientists learned better how to spot Soviet nuclear tests.

Liquid wastes from reprocessing were stored in underground tanks designed to last 25 years, assuming that a permanent disposal solution would be developed later. The U.S. Department of Energy, which now operates the weapons complex and its cleanup program, is still working on that solution.

Workers prepare to remove the core from a waste tank at Hanford in 2010.

Meanwhile, at least a million gallons of tank wastes have leaked into the ground. This material, and the prospect of more to follow, threatens the Columbia River, a backbone of the Pacific Northwest’s economy and ecology. Some groundwater is already contaminated. Estimates of when that plume will reach the river are uncertain.

Radioactive trash still litters parts of Hanford. Irradiated bodies of laboratory animals were buried there. The site houses radioactive debris ranging from medical wastes to propulsion reactors from decommissioned submarines and parts of the reactor that melted down at Three Mile Island. Some nuclear decision makers have called Hanford a “national sacrifice zone.”

A struggle for accountability

In the mid-1980s, local residents grew suspicious about an apparent excess of illnesses and deaths in their community. Initially, strict secrecy – reinforced by the region’s economic dependence on the Hanford site – made it hard for concerned citizens to get information.

Once the curtain of secrecy was partially lifted under pressure from area residents and journalists, public outrage prompted two major health effects studies that engendered fierce controversy. By the close of the decade, more than 3,500 “downwinders” had filed lawsuits related to illnesses they attributed to Hanford. A judge finally dismissed the case in 2016 after limited compensation to a handful of plaintiffs, leaving a bitter legacy of legal disputes and personal anguish.

Cleanup operations at Hanford began in 1989, but have been hamstrung by daunting technical challenges and management errors. The current estimate assumes work will continue through 2060 and cost over $100 billion, beyond the approximately $50 billion already spent.

Cold War-era billboard at Hanford reinforcing strict secrecy rules.

A key challenge is building a facility to extract the most toxic materials from the tank wastes and enclose them in glass logs to be sent elsewhere for permanent burial. Projected costs have ballooned to over $17 billion, and the estimated completion date is now 2036. And with the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada mired in controversy, there is still no final resting place for these materials, which will be dangerous for tens of thousands of years.

Cleanup has progressed in other areas. The reactors have been shut down and enclosed in concrete and steel “cocoons” until their radioactivity decays further. Hanford’s “B Reactor,” the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor, is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

Buffer lands around the outer parts of the site, presumably clean enough for the purpose, have been converted to wildlife refuge areas. And in 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), with a station located at Hanford, detected the first gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein. LIGO scientists chose Hanford for its remote location and minimal interference from human activity.

Lessons to remember

The Department of Energy now considers many of its former nuclear weapons production sites to be fully cleaned up. Some remaining sites are involved in maintaining the current nuclear arsenal and could play roles producing new weapons. Others, like Hanford, are “legacy” sites where cleanup is the sole mission.

There is more oversight of the nuclear weapons complex today, but serious concerns remain. Notably, inspectors have found problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory dating back to 2011 related to handling of beryllium, a toxic material that can cause cancer and lung disease.

The ConversationThese issues at Hanford and other nuclear sites are reminders that nuclear weapons production is a risky process – and that in Washington state and elsewhere, legacies of the Cold War are still very much with us.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...