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Know the West

Up in smoke: Hanford fire releases plutonium

Activists worried about airborne ash


RICHLAND, Wash. - From the air, the southern swath of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was a charcoal smear, extending from the spine of Rattlesnake Ridge on the west across miles to an idled breeder reactor on the east. Brown-gray smoke obscured much of the scorched prairie. Twin-rotor helicopters took turns dropping buckets of water on the flames and lumbering airplanes painted red stripes down the fire line with clouds of flame retardant. Several miles north, a two-mile line of flames marched toward underground storage tanks that hold the nation's largest nuclear weapons complex's most dangerous radioactive waste.

For the second time in less than two months, one of the nation's Manhattan Project labs was threatened by wildfire (HCN, 6/5/00: The West's hottest question: How to burn what's bound to burn). This blaze started June 27, when a car and an apple-waste truck collided, sparking the range fire that stripped sagebrush and bunchgrass from 192,000 acres - a third of the Hanford Reservation and a small portion of Benton County - in less than three days. At one point, the fire moved 20 miles in an hour and a half. At another, it jumped the Yakima River. In total, it burned 11 homes.

As in the Los Alamos fires, many were concerned about the risk of radioactive contamination. During initial press briefings, U.S. Department of Energy and Washington Department of Health officials insisted no radioactive materials were released. Two weeks after the fire was doused, however, it turned out they were wrong. On July 12, Energy officials announced that a more detailed analysis of air samples shows plutonium was released.

Breathing fire

Energy officials say this is no cause for worry.

"I'm very confident there isn't going to be any health problems," says Debra McBaugh of the Washington Health Department. Energy officials add that the amount of plutonium presents far less of a health risk than a typical dental X-ray.

The amount of plutonium, between 10 and 100 times more radioactive than the normal "background" radiation levels found in the air around Hanford, is far below health-protection standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says Harry Boston, Hanford deputy manager.

Nuclear safety experts and watchdog groups are far less dismissive of the plutonium findings.

The Hanford fire scorched a series of old waste-disposal trenches called the B-C Cribs. Those cribs soaked up more than 120 million gallons of waste in the 1950s. While there is debate about how much of the cribs burned, everyone agrees the fires charred some of the contaminated territory. That's a problem because "those two cribs have a much higher contaminate inventory than the entire contaminate inventory at Los Alamos," says Bob Alvarez, former senior safety and environmental advisor to U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and now director of the Nuclear Policy Project, a Maryland watchdog group.

Alvarez is also concerned about the soil surrounding the cribs.

Between 1947 and 1966, when tank space wasn't available, billions of gallons of liquid nuclear waste were dumped onto the ground. The soil is soaked with radioactive sludge that plants pull up through their roots. Fire reduced the plants and their radioactive contaminants to ashes. Now, acres of radioactive soil, laid bare by the fire, are free to hitchhike across the skies of the Inland Northwest as hot summer winds come boiling across the nuclear reservation.

"It's a huge nightmare in terms of radioactive contamination control," says Alvarez.

Fine plutonium particles can easily lodge in the lungs, and local watchdog groups worry about risks to firefighters as well as to people living downwind.

"These fires have been of concern to us because of this very issue," adds Hisham Zerriffi, senior scientist with the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "When it comes to plutonium, the real big hazard is inhalation."

"The firefighters were not given protective gear," including respirators, says Hyun Lee of Heart of America Northwest, a regional grassroots group focusing on cleanup at Hanford.

Lee believes that Hanford's emergency planning was inadequate, especially in the face of previous research that should have functioned as a warning.

A 1975 Energy Department report predicted that if a fire scorched the entire 25-square-mile crib area, there would be large releases of strontium 90 and cesium.

Considering that the polluted area has expanded considerably since 1975, those estimates "are probably very conservative," says Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project in Seattle.

The Washington Department of Health is currently analyzing samples for cesium, strontium and other radioactive pollutants, but officials are confident they will appear at low levels, if at all. The results won't be available for months.

Ken Olsen lives in Spokane, Wash., where he writes for the Spokesman-Review.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "In New Mexico, a surprising proposal rises from the flames."


  • Erik Olds, U.S. Department of Energy, 509/372-8656, www.hanford.gov/hanfordfire.html;
  • Fish and Wildlife Service in Richland, Wash., 509/371-1801;
  • Heart of America Northwest, 206/382-1014.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ken Olsen