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Hanford – the true heartland of America’s toxic nuclear mess

The 60-Year Downfall of Nuclear Power in the U.S. Has Left a Huge Mess   The demand for atomic energy is in decline. But before the country can abandon its plants, there’s six decades of waste to deal with.  The Atlantic , FRED PEARCE,  

“………  The true heartland of America’s nuclear enterprise has always been Hanford. And it is the biggest and most toxic cleanup legacy too. Straddling the Columbia River, the Hanford nuclear reservation was America’s primary bomb-making factory. It was where they made the plutonium. At peak production, during the 1960s, its nine reactors irradiated 7,000 metric tons of uranium fuel annually. The intense radiation inside the reactors produced plutonium that was then extracted at five reprocessing plants. Hanford produced a total of 67 metric tons of the metal for the American arsenal, before business halted after the Cold War ended.Plutonium production was a huge task. It required much of the electricity generated at the giant Grand Coulee Dam upstream on the Columbia, the largest hydroelectric power producer in the United States. And the mess left behind is equally mind-boggling. Since production ceased, Hanford has been conducting the country’s largest-ever environmental cleanup program. The current expenditure is $2.3 billion a year. By the time it is done the bill will be more than $100 billion.

The site holds an estimated 25 million cubic feet of solid, radioactive waste. Much of it is buried in over 40 miles of trenches and tunnels, up to 24 feet deep, including the stretch that caved in last year. Elsewhere, there are two corroding cooling ponds, each the size of an Olympic swimming pool, containing some 2,000 tons of spent fuel that never got reprocessed.

But the headline Hanford problem is the 56 million gallons of acidic and highly radioactive liquids and sludges, stored in 177 giant tanks, each up to 75 feet in diameter. They are the solvent leftovers from reprocessing, and contain around twice the total radioactivity released from the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine.

The tanks have been leaking for over half a century. Around a million gallons are slowly spreading toward the Columbia River, in a plume of contaminated soil covering 80 square miles. Protecting the river and its rich salmon habitat from the radioactive pollution is the number-one cleanup priority for the site’s custodians at the Department of Energy. To head off the flows, engineers are constantly pumping out radioactive water.

A better idea is to stop the leaks at the source by emptying the tanks and solidifying the liquids. The current aim is to heat them with glass-forming materials to create solid blocks that could one day be buried deep underground—maybe at Yucca Mountain. Work on a plant to do this began in 2002. It is currently 25 years behind schedule. Operations are not set to begin until 2036 and, once underway, would take 40 years.

At $17 billion and counting, the project is way over budget. Former plant engineers who have turned whistle-blowers believe it won’t be fit for the job and should be abandoned. They warn of a serious risk that particles of plutonium may settle out in the plant processing tanks, creating the potential for an accidental explosion with a big release of radiation.

The task at Hanford grows ever more daunting. After almost three decades, little of the waste and few of the tanks or processing plants have been cleaned up. Far away in Washington, D.C., some question the continuing money sink. It seems to some like a 21st-century pork barrel. Perhaps, critics say, it would be better to put up a fence and walk away. President Trump, while so far publicly supporting the Hanford cleanup, may privately agree. He has slashed its annual budget by $230 million, or about 10 percent.

Local environmentalists are scandalized. “We have got to clean up the site,” says Dan Serres, the conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a local NGO. The tanks should be emptied and the trenches dug up. “In a hundred years, I’d hope the Native Americans have their treaty rights to this land restored,” agrees Chuck Johnson, of Physicians for Social Responsibility. But Tom Carpenter, the executive director of Hanford Challenge, who sits on an advisory board at the Hanford Concerns Council, told me: “You are never going to dig all the waste there up.” The tanks will have to be dealt with, but “most of Hanford’s waste volume-wise is going to stay put. Hanford is going to be a national sacrifice zone for hundreds of years.”


This piece is adapted from Pearce’s new book, Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age.https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/05/the-60-year-downfall-of-nuclear-power-in-the-us-has-left-a-huge-mess/560945/

 

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May 30, 2018 - Posted by | Reference, USA, wastes

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