Feds find shortcuts in nuclear cleanup

Tribes, environmentalists say Hanford is not a "sacrifice area"

  • HANGOVER: Massive underground storage tanks hold 54 million gallons of radioactive waste

    Department of Energy photo
 

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.
High Country News Classifieds
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....