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Two grim facts underlie all the sobering information about the actual and potential harm Hanford poses to the environment.
1) Water Contamination
At least one third of Hanford's 177 huge high-level nuclear waste tanks, many as big as the capitol dome in Olympia, have leaked. In some areas technology from the 1950s is still being used to detect leaks, probably underestimating the extent of contamination. Almost all of the single-shell tanks are well beyond their design life, so more leaks are likely. Radioactive contaminants have reached the groundwater 200 feet below the surface and are on their way or have already reached the Columbia River (see map). In the last free-flowing US stretch of the Columbia flowing through Hanford, now the Hanford Reach National Monument, 70% of the fall chinook spawn each year. Over 300 miles of the Columbia River downstream from Hanford are threatened by the leaking tanks. The WA Department of Ecology notes that "aside from the environmental damage and health risk, the perception of the river being contaminated could devastate the market for northwest agricultural products."1
2) Atmospheric Contamination
Newspaper headlines in 1999, "Nuclear Blob Grows at Hanford,2 described a bulge in the radioactive crust on one of the huge waste tanks caused by a buildup of dangerously explosive hydrogen. While this threat was resolved, it is one of a variety of safety issues that have plagued Hanford tanks. These include flammable gasses, nuclear materials, and explosive chemicals. In 1957 in Siberia a high-level waste tank exploded, spreading a radioactive plume of 20 million curies 180 miles long, giving people estimated doses of .7 to 80 REM, and necessitating the relocation of well over 10,000 people.3 Collapsing tank domes or tank explosions that could spread radioactivity far beyond Hanford remain a genuine threat.
Fires at Hanford pose another real danger. In August 1984 and July 2000 raging sagebrush fires burned three-fifths of the Hanford area. The July 2000 fire burned three radioactive waste sites and stopped just short of some major waste sites.4 Afterwards plutonium was detected in nearby communities.
Earthquakes are an additional concern. Just a quarter mile from the Columbia River, two large swimming pool-like structures, the K-Basins, hold 80% of the DOE's stockpile of spent fuel rods. These storage basins have leaked in the past. If earthquakes cracked these structures, draining off the cooling water, the spent rods could spontaneously ignite, seriously polluting the atmosphere.
WPSR recommends citizen involvement and action on the following issues:
The plan is to immobilize the high-level waste in rods of special glass at Hanford vitrification facilities. This will require an enormous amount of funding from Congress, and enforceable milestones to ensure that the building and operation will move ahead. These would be far and away the largest vitritication facilities in the world. It is sobering to realize that even if all goes well on schedule (as it has not so far), only the first 10% of the waste would be treated by 2018. The current administration in urging "faster and cheaper" cleanup efforts for the remaining 90%. Public interest groups including WPSR fear that the processes proposed as alternatives to vitrification of the high level radioactive waste will be dangerously ineffective.
The low-level radioactive and mixed waste burial grounds at Hanford seriously threaten soil and groundwater at Hanford because these dumpsites are unlined trenches, effectively unmonitored. Citizen pressure is necessary to 1) fund investigations of the contamination, and 2) prohibit the use of cleanup funds to subsidize the disposal of waste from other sites. Such action can halt importation of this dangerous waste.
Proponents of restarting the reactor have tried to convince the public that the FFTF could produce useful medical isotopes. WPSR has gathered testimony from top experts in radioisotopes who conclude that all the radionuclides needed in this country for medical treatment, diagnosis and therapy are currently available. The Journal of Nuclear Medicine lists isotopes already being made by other facilities,5 showing that there is nothing that the FFTF can produce which other facilities cannot. The isolated location of the reactor on the west coast makes it inappropriate for the production and transportation of short-lived medical isotopes for the nation. The Institute of Medicine concludes that the FFTF should NOT be restarted for medical isotope production.6
In 1993 the Department of Energy itself acknowledged that there was no financially viable use for FFTF and it should be shut down. In 1997 active citizens stopped a proposed FFTF mission to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. Continued citizen concern resulted in Energy Secretary Richardson's January 2001 decision that the reactor should be shut down, and Energy Secretary Abraham's 2001 review of that decision came to the same conclusion. Citizens must maintain the pressure to ensure that these decisions are upheld.
Particles on the Wall is an interdisciplinary exhibit exploring elements of the nuclear age, science, Hanford history, their thread through our lives and their bearing on the Columbia River and natural world. POTW's first venue is in Seattle's University District at the Allegro Cafe.