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Hanford and Environmental Health

Two grim facts underlie all the sobering information about the actual and potential harm Hanford poses to the environment.

  • Radioactive and chemical contamination has not and will not stay inside Hanford's boundaries.
  • Contamination will remain for hundreds of thousands of years beyond any memory of a place called Hanford.

What are the present threats?

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.

How can we minimize harm from these threats?

WPSR recommends citizen involvement and action on the following issues:

  1. Immobilize tank waste
    Years of failures, false starts and delays characterize the struggle to deal with aging and leaking tanks. In 1999 the Governor of Washington State threatened to sue the Department of Energy for failing to move high-level radioactive wastes out of leaking tanks to temporarily safe tanks. A common Hanford saying is that there are two kinds of tanks: those that leak and those that will leak. So a very long-term solution is needed for waste which will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

    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.

  2. Move spent fuel away from the river
    The huge inventory of spent nuclear fuel in the K-basins is now slowly being moved away from the river to reduce the risk described above. This project is scheduled for completion in 2007.
  3. Halt waste import to Hanford
    The first logical step in cleaning up Hanford should be to ensure that NO ADDITIONAL WASTE be imported until current wastes are effectively contained. But the Department of Energy continues to push for designating Hanford as the recipient of low-level radioactive waste and mixed waste (which contains both radioactive and hazardous chemical waste) from around the nation. The label "low-level radioactive waste" is misleading, since it is how the waste is produced that determines whether it is labeled high or low-level, and "low-level" radioactive waste can be intensely radioactive.

    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.

  4. Ensure that the FFTF is permanently shut down
    While Secretary of Energy Abraham decided in December 2001 to permanently close the FFTF, the reactor so far remains on standby. Until it is shut down, the facility could divert attention from the cleanup mission, siphon funds away from cleanup, and if restarted, could undermine cleanup by adding new waste streams and missions for the site.

    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.

  5. Fund Cleanup and meet the milestones in the Tri-Party Cleanup Agreement
    Vocal citizens at hearings about the budget and cleanup have demanded getting on with cleanup. The vigilance and voices of many more are needed to ensure that no further disasters occur at Hanford.

  1. WA Department of Ecology, Protecting the Columbia River, 1999, p. 18.
  2. "Nuclear Blob Grows at Hanford", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sept. 27, 1999.
  3. "A Cloud of Secrecy", Spokane Spokesman-Review, 1992.
  4. "Fire cleanup begins," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 30, 2000.
  5. "Availability of Radioisotopes Produced in North America," The Journal of Nuclear Medicine, Vol. 41 (9), Sept. 2000.
  6. Isotopes for Medicine and the Life Sciences, Institute of Medicine, 1995, p. 51-2.