The Hanford Nuclear Reservation sits on the plains of eastern Washington, where the state meets Oregon and Idaho. This is open country through which cars pass quickly on the way to the Pacific coast or, conversely, deeper into the heartland. The site is nearly 600 square miles in area and has been largely closed to the public for the past 70 years. Late last year, though, it became part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which will allow visitors to tour B Reactor, where plutonium for one of the two atomic weapons dropped on Japan in World War II was produced.
This was a hopeful turn for a place that, for four decades, stocked the American nuclear arsenal. A total of nine reactors operated at Hanford, and though they are now decommissioned, the reactors have left behind 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. That a place so tainted with radioactive material could become parkland was a positive sign.
Not quite, it seems, with recent reports indicating new breaches in the tanks holding the nuclear waste. Workers on the site have been sickened too, suggesting that the rush to designate Hanford as a park may have been premature.
The 177 underground tanks were never a permanent solution, and the government has hired private contractors to build a plant that will solidify the waste and prepare it for permanent safe storage. The project will cost an astonishing $110 billion, according to estimates, making it what many believe to be the most expensive, and extensive, environmental remediation project in the world. Completion is about five decades away.
When I visited Hanford in 2013, construction of the Waste Treatment Plant—which will pump nuclear sludge out of the tanks and turn them into a hardened, glasslike substance—was slow and rife with technical challenges. Whistleblowers, meanwhile, were alleging that private contractors had neglected safety and engineering concerns in their rush to complete the job. Otherwise sober observers likened the place to a nuclear tinderbox. “America’s Fukushima?” asked the resulting Newsweek cover story.
The question remains disturbingly open. Of the 28 newer double-shelled tanks, AY-102 was already known to be leaking toxic sludge into the soil. Now a second double-shelled tank, AY-101, is believed to be leaking as well, according to a report by Seattle news station KING 5. A contractor’s memo obtained by the station acknowledges “the possibility that the material is from tank waste that has escaped from the primary shell of the double-shell tank.” That material likely includes radioactive isotopes like cesium-137 and strontium-90, though nobody really knows the exact composition of the sludge in each tank. But everyone is certain that their escape bodes poorly for the thousands who live and work in the Tri-Cities area of Washington State.
Those worries were further compounded late last week when 11 workers at Hanford became ill due to vapors emanating from AY-102, the leaking double-shelled tank.
The ill workers and revelations about the second leaking tank are likely to dampen enthusiasm about Hanford’s unlikely return to nature. In the wake of the most recent revelations, a nuclear-energy historian warned on the liberal site CounterPunch that “at Hanford we have the threat of a radiological explosion or terrorist act that could release volumes more radiation than was released by Fukushima...and spread radiation across the West Coast and mountain west.”
This is an unwelcome development for one of the nation’s newest national parks. Maybe the federal government was cavalier in this designation: It’s hard to enjoy nature when the possibility of man-made disaster looms.
Reprinted with permission from Newsweek.