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Hanford nuclear waste site – a national disaster they don’t want to talk about.

“Nobody in the world has waste like ours,” says one of my guides as we enter the site. No one has so much strontium 90, for instance, which behaves a lot like calcium and lodges inside the bones of any living creatures it penetrates, basically forever. Along with chromium and tritium and carbon tetrachloride and iodine 129 and the other waste products of a plutonium factory it is already present in Hanford’s groundwater. There are other nuclear-waste sites in the United States, but two-thirds of all the waste is here. Beneath Hanford a massive underground glacier of radioactive sludge is moving slowly, but relentlessly, toward the Columbia River.

The place is now an eerie deconstruction site, with ghost towns on top of ghost towns. Much of the old plutonium plant still stands: the husks of the original nine reactors, built in the 1940s, still line the Columbia River, like grain elevators. Their doors have been welded shut, and they have been left to decay—for another century.

 Only one stakeholder in the place wanted to know what was going on beneath its soil: the tribes. 

WHY THE SCARIEST NUCLEAR THREAT MAY BE COMING FROM INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE, Vanity Fair, BY  MICHAEL LEWISSeptember 2017  “………By the early 1940s the United States government understood that for democracy to survive it needed to beat Hitler to the atom bomb, and that the race had two paths—one required enriched uranium, the other plutonium. In early 1943, the United States Army was evicting everyone from an area in Eastern Washington nearly half the size of Rhode Island and setting out to create plutonium in order to build a nuclear bomb. The site of Hanford was chosen for its proximity to the Columbia River, which could supply the cooling water while its dams provided the electricity needed to make plutonium. Hanford was also chosen for its remoteness: the army was worried about both enemy attacks and an accidental nuclear explosion. Hanford was, finally, chosen for its poverty. It was convenient that what would become the world’s largest public-works project arose in a place from which people had to be paid so little to leave.

From 1943 until 1987, as the Cold War was ending and Hanford closed its reactors, the place created two-thirds of the plutonium in the United States’ arsenal—a total of 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945. You’d like to think that if anyone had known the environmental consequences of plutonium, or if anyone could have been certain that the uranium bomb would work, they’d never have done here what they did. “Plutonium is hard to produce,” said MacWilliams. “And hard to get rid of.” By the late 1980s the state of Washington had gained some clarity on just how hard and began to negotiate with the U.S. government. In the ensuing agreement the United States promised to return Hanford to a condition where, as MacWilliams put it, “kids can eat the dirt.” When I asked him to guess what it would cost to return Hanford to the standards now legally required, he said, “A century and a hundred billion dollars.” And that was a conservative estimate.

More or less overnight Hanford went from the business of making plutonium to the even more lucrative business of cleaning it up. In its last years of production the plutonium plant employed around 9,000 people. It still employs 9,000 people and pays them even more than it used to. “It’s a good thing that we live in a country that cares enough to take the time it will take, and spend the money it will spend, to clean up the legacy of the Cold War,” said MacWilliams. “In Russia they just drop concrete on the stuff and move on.”

The Department of Energy wires 10 percent of its annual budget, or $3 billion a year, into this tiny place and intends to do so until the radioactive mess is cleaned up. And even though what is now called the Tri-Cities area is well populated and amazingly prosperous—yachts on the river, $300 bottles of wine in the bistros—the absolute worst thing that could happen to it is probably not a nuclear accident. The worst thing that could happen is that the federal government loses interest in it and slashes the D.O.E.’s budget—as President Trump has proposed to do. And yet Trump won the county in which Hanford resides by 25 points.

The next morning, with a pair of local guides, I drive into the D.O.E. project most direly in need of management. In my lap is a book of instructions for visitors: “Report any spill or release,” it says, among other things. “Nobody in the world has waste like ours,” says one of my guides as we enter the site. No one has so much strontium 90, for instance, which behaves a lot like calcium and lodges inside the bones of any living creatures it penetrates, basically forever. Along with chromium and tritium and carbon tetrachloride and iodine 129 and the other waste products of a plutonium factory it is already present in Hanford’s groundwater. There are other nuclear-waste sites in the United States, but two-thirds of all the waste is here. Beneath Hanford a massive underground glacier of radioactive sludge is moving slowly, but relentlessly, toward the Columbia River.

The place is now an eerie deconstruction site, with ghost towns on top of ghost towns. Much of the old plutonium plant still stands: the husks of the original nine reactors, built in the 1940s, still line the Columbia River, like grain elevators. Their doors have been welded shut, and they have been left to decay—for another century. “Cold and dark is a term we like to use,” says one of my guides, though he adds that rattlesnakes and other living creatures often find their way into the reactors. Of the settlement that existed before the government seized the land, there remain the stumps of trees from what were once orchards and the small stone shell of the town bank.  There are older ghosts here, too. What looks like arid scrubland contains countless Indian burial grounds and other sites sacred to the tribes who lived here: the Nez Perce, the Umatilla, and the Yakama. For the 13,000 years or so prior to the white man’s arrival the place had been theirs. To them the American experiment is no more than the blink of an eye. “You have only been here 200 years, so you can only imagine 200 years into the future,” as a Nez Perce spokesman put it to me. “We have been here tens of thousands of years, and we will be here forever. One day we will again eat the roots.”

Three years ago the D.O.E. sent the local tribes a letter to say they shouldn’t eat the fish they caught in the river more than once a week. But for the longest time, the effects of radiation on the human body were either ignored or insincerely explored: no one associated with the business of creating it wanted the knowledge that might disrupt it. Downwind of Hanford, people experienced unusually high rates of certain kinds of cancer, miscarriages, and genetic disorders that went largely ignored. “It’s easy to have no observable health effects when you never look,” the medical director of the Lawrence Livermore lab said, back in the 1980s, after seeing how the private contractors who ran Hanford studied the matter. In her jaw-dropping 2015 book, Plutopia, University of Maryland historian Kate Brown compares and contrasts American plutonium production at Hanford and its Soviet twin, Ozersk. The American understanding of the risks people ran when they came into contact with radiation may have been weaker than the Soviets’. The Soviet government was at least secure in the knowledge that it could keep any unpleasant information to itself. Americans weren’t and so avoided the information—or worse. In 1962 a Hanford worker named Harold Aardal, exposed to a blast of neutron radiation, was whisked to a hospital, where he was told he was perfectly O.K. except that he was now sterile—and back then it didn’t even make the news. Instead, Hanford researchers in the late 1960s went to a local prison and paid the inmates to allow the irradiation of their testicles, to see just how much radiation a man can receive before the tails fall from his sperm.

A young elk gallops across the road in front of our car. He owes his existence, perhaps, to the atom bomb: hunting hasn’t been allowed on the 586-square-mile tract since 1943, and so there’s game everywhere—geese, ducks, cougars, rabbits, elk, and deer. We drive past T plant, the long gray concrete building where they brought the irradiated material from the reactors, to cull the plutonium that went into the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Because it, too, is cold and dark, it is of less concern than the land surrounding it, for that is where the waste from the plant got dumped. The Nagasaki bomb contained about 14 pounds of plutonium, but the waste generated fills acres of manicured dirt, the texture of a baseball infield, just downhill from the plant. “The tank farm,” they call it.

On these farms lay buried 177 tanks, each roughly the size of a four-story apartment building and capable of holding a million gallons of “high-level waste.” Fifty-six million gallons now in the tanks are classified as “high-level waste.” What, you might ask, is high-level waste? “Incredibly dangerous stuff,” says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, the organization which has monitored the site since the late 1980s. “If you’re exposed to it for even a few seconds you probably got a fatal dose.” And yet as you drive by, you would never know anything unusual was happening on the infield were it not for the men crawling over it, with scuba tanks on their backs and oxygen masks on their faces.

Hanford turns out to be a good example of an American impulse: to avoid knowledge that conflicts with whatever your narrow, short-term interests might be. What we know about Hanford we know mainly from whistle-blowers who worked inside the nuclear facility—and who have been ostracized by their community for threatening the industry in a one-industry town. (“Resistance to understanding a threat grows with proximity,” writes Brown.) One hundred and forty-nine of the tanks in the Hanford farms are made of a single shell of a steel ill-designed to contain highly acidic nuclear waste. Sixty-seven of them have failed in some way and allowed waste or vapors to seep out. Each tank contains its own particular stew of chemicals, so no two tanks can be managed in the same way. At the top of many tanks accumulates a hydrogen gas, which, if not vented, might cause the tank to explode. “There are Fukushima-level events that could happen at any moment,” says Carpenter. “You’d be releasing millions of curies of strontium 90 and cesium. And once it’s out there it doesn’t go away—not for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

The people who created the plutonium for the first bombs, in the 1940s and early 1950s, were understandably in too much of a rush to worry about what might happen afterward. They simply dumped 120 million gallons of high-level waste, and another 444 billiongallons of contaminated liquid, into the ground. They piled uranium (half-life: 4.5 billion years) into unlined pits near the Columbia River. They dug 42 miles of trenches to dispose of solid radioactive waste—and left no good records of what’s in the trenches. In early May of this year a tunnel at Hanford, built in the 1950s to bury low-level waste, collapsed. In response, the workers dumped truckloads of dirt into the hole. That dirt is now classified as low-level radioactive waste and needs to be disposed of. “The reason the Hanford cleanup sucks—in a word—is shortcuts,” said Carpenter. “Too many goddamn shortcuts.”

There is another way to think of John MacWilliams’s fifth risk: the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions. Program management is not just program management. Program management is all the “less detectable, systemic risks.” Some of the things any incoming president should worry about are fast-moving: natural disasters, terrorist attacks. But most are not. Most are like bombs with very long fuses that, in the distant future, when the fuse reaches the bomb, might or might not explode. It is delaying repairs to a tunnel filled with lethal waste until, one day, it collapses. It is the aging workforce of the D.O.E.—which is no longer attracting young people as it once did—that one day loses track of a nuclear bomb. It is the ceding of technical and scientific leadership to China. It is the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.

Toward the end of his time as secretary of energy, Ernie Moniz suggested that the department, for the first time ever, conduct a serious study of the risks at Hanford. Once the risks were spelled out, perhaps everyone would agree that it was folly to try to turn it into, say, a playground. Maybe the U.S. government should just keep a giant fence around the place and call it a monument to mismanagement. Maybe the people at the labs could figure out how to keep the radioactivity from seeping into the Columbia River and leave it at that. Maybe it shouldn’t be the D.O.E.’s job to deal with the problem, as the problem had no good solution and the political costs of constant failure interfered with the D.O.E.’s ability to address problems it might actually solve.

It turned out no one wanted to make a serious study of the risks at Hanford. Not the contractors who stood to make lots of money from things chugging along as they have. Not the career people inside the D.O.E. who oversaw the project and who feared that an open acknowledgment of all the risks was an invitation to even more lawsuits. Not the citizens of Eastern Washington, who count on the $3 billion a year flowing into their region from the federal government. Only one stakeholder in the place wanted to know what was going on beneath its soil: the tribes. A radioactive ruin does not crumble without consequences, and yet, even now, no one can say what these are.

Here is where the Trump administration’s willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is a downside to knowledge. It makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.

There is a telling example of this Trumpian impulse—the desire not to know—in a small D.O.E. program that goes by its acronym, ARPA-E. ARPA-E was conceived during the George W. Bush administration as an energy equivalent of DARPA—the Defense Department’s research-grant program that had funded the creation of G.P.S. and the Internet, among other things. Even in the D.O.E. budget the program was trivial—$300 million a year. It made small grants to researchers who had scientifically plausible, wildly creative ideas that might change the world. If you thought you could make water from sunlight, or genetically engineer some bug so that it eats electrons and craps oil, or create a building material that becomes cooler on the inside as it grows hotter on the outside, ARPA-E was your place. More to the point: your only place. At any given time in America there are lots of seriously smart people with bold ideas that might change life as we know it—it may be the most delightful distinguishing feature of our society. The idea behind ARPA-E was to find the best of these ideas that the free market had declined to finance and make sure they were given a chance. Competition for the grants has been fierce: only two out of every hundred are approved. The people who do the approving come from the energy industry and academia. They do brief tours of duty in government, then return to Intel and Harvard.

The man who ran the place when it opened was Arun Majumdar. He grew up in India, finished at the top of his engineering class, moved to the United States, and became a world-class materials scientist. He now teaches at Stanford University but could walk into any university in America and get a job. Invited to run ARPA-E, he took a leave from teaching, moved to Washington, D.C., and went to work for the D.O.E. “This country embraced me as one of her sons,” he said. “So when someone is calling me to serve, it is hard to say no.” His only demand was that he be allowed to set up the program in a small office down the street from the Department of Energy building. “The feng shui of D.O.E. is really bad,” he explained.

Right away he faced the hostility of right-wing think tanks. The Heritage Foundation even created its own budget plan back in 2011 that eliminated ARPA-E. American politics was alien to the Indian immigrant; he couldn’t fathom the tribal warfare. “Democrat, Republican—what is this?,” as he put it. “Also, why don’t people vote? In India people stand in line in 40 degrees Celsius to vote.” He phoned up the guys who had written the Heritage budget and invited them over to see what they’d be destroying. They invited him to lunch. “They were very gracious,” said Majumdar, “but they didn’t know anything. They were not scientists in any sense. They were ideologues. Their point was: the market should take care of everything. I said, ‘I can tell you that the market does not go into the lab and work on something that might or might not work.’ ”

Present at lunch was a woman who, Majumdar learned, helped to pay the bills at the Heritage Foundation. After he’d explained ARPA-E—and some of the life-changing ideas that the free market had failed to fund in their infancy—she perked up and said, “Are you guys like DARPA?” Yes, he said. “Well, I’m a big fan of DARPA,” she said. It turned out her son had fought in Iraq. His life was saved by a Kevlar vest. The early research to create the Kevlar vest was done by DARPA.

The guys at Heritage declined the invitation to actually visit the D.O.E. and see what ARPA-E was up to. But in their next faux budget they restored the funding for ARPA-E. (The Heritage Foundation did not respond to questions about its relationship with the D.O.E.)

As I drove out of Hanford the Trump administration unveiled its budget for the Department of Energy. ARPA-E had since won the praise of business leaders from Bill Gates to Lee Scott, the former C.E.O. of Walmart, to Fred Smith, the Republican founder of FedEx, who has said that “pound for pound, dollar for dollar, activity for activity, it’s hard to find a more effective thing government has done than ARPA-E.” Trump’s budget eliminates ARPA-E altogether. It also eliminates the spectacularly successful $70 billion loan program. It cuts funding to the national labs in a way that implies the laying off of 6,000 of their people. It eliminates all research on climate change. It halves the funding for work to secure the electrical grid from attack or natural disaster. “All the risks are science-based,” said John MacWilliams when he saw the budget. “You can’t gut the science. If you do, you are hurting the country. If you gut the core competency of the D.O.E., you gut the country.”

But you can. Indeed, if you are seeking to preserve a certain worldview, it actually helps to gut science. Trump’s budget, like the social forces behind it, is powered by a perverse desire—to remain ignorant. Trump didn’t invent this desire. He is just its ultimate expression. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/07/department-of-energy-risks-michael-lewis

 

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July 28, 2017 - Posted by | Reference, USA, wastes

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