Don't Let the DOE Just 'Cover Up' Hanford's Nuclear Waste

Three public meetings this week in Portland and Seattle may be the last stand to stop the Trump administration and the Department of Energy from allowing two-thirds of America’s high-level radioactive waste to continue to poison us all for decades to come.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world's first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance. Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

One of the less-reported decisions of the Trump administration during its first six months in office was to recommend slashing funding for the country’s largest, most dangerous and most urgent environmental cleanup site in the U.S. – the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington. That decision is now coming to rest with a formal recommendation by the Department of Energy to reclassify that high-level waste as low-level waste. It then plans to set aside the waste in 16 storage tanks in C-Farm and just cover it up with cement. This will leave 70,000 gallons of this highly toxic waste in place forever, untreated, still poisonous, and still with the likelihood of leaking onto open lands and into waterways and streams for years to come.

As Trillions reported earlier in its July 13, 2017 story, “Nuclear Insanity Costs America Dearly”, the Hanford site holds two-thirds of the United States’ high-level radioactive waste by volume. It is without a doubt the most contaminated plutonium production facility in the world.

The Hanford Site began in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. That was in the earliest days of the coming nuclear age, and not a lot was understood about how to manage nuclear materials and keep the residues safe. It ended up producing plutonium for most of America’s estimated 60,000 nuclear weapons between 1943 and 1987, when it was eventually shut down. In those decades, it produced, as reported in the 2017 article, “approximately 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in 177 leaky storage tanks, an additional 25 million cubic feet (710,000 m3) of solid radioactive waste and more than 500 mil­lion gallons of contaminated groundwater under 200 square miles (520 km2) of land.”

According to a recently-concluded five-year EPA of cleanup measures, the radioactive waste, dangerous enough in the storage tanks, has continued to leak. As that report noted, “contaminated in-area ground water is still flowing freely into the Columbia”. That’s the Columbia river running between Oregon and Washington, which then allows the radioactive waste to flow out to sea.

Numerous attempts to clean up the site have made at best minor progress on stopping the flow of nuclear waste and finding ways to seal it off. As “high-level” toxic waste it was at least getting attention, even though imperfect and often involving corrupt contracts which took hundreds of millions of dollars in and delivered little to solve the problem. There was even a waste treatment plant constructed all the way to 78% completeness as of 2016, but then had work put on hold after a thorough review showed major problems with material flaws, construction errors, and fundamental design failures.

The Trump administration entered this mess in 2017 treating this almost like it was a tiny oil spill from a gas can. The Scott Pruitt-lead Environmental Protection Agency, eager to close off all headaches of the past, championed a proposal to drastically cut budgets for any remaining work on the cleanup of the Hanford waste site. With estimates to clean it up running over $115 billion, that is understandable. Except that this is the responsibility of the U.S. Government: to clean up its own messes and protect the American public.

If anything, the place the U.S. needs to cut back is in the creation of more nuclear weapons and more nuclear waste to go along with it. Nuclear war is if anything even more out-of-the-question than it was back in the days when American luxury homes of the 1960s included their own nuclear fallout shelters. The U.S. on its own continues to spend over $25 billion a year on nuclear weapons. Under Trump, nuclear options have allegedly been on the table to deal with many different crises which have come up, including the saber-rattling arguments with North Korea and in undisclosed locations in the Middle East.

That nuclear insanity must stop. The other insanity that needs to grind to a screeching halt is ignoring the waste the country has allowed to accumulate and leak at Hanford.

This is why the public hearings which are coming up to discuss the Department of Energy’s plan to reclassify Hanford’s high-level waste as low-level waste -- and then just cover it over with cement -- are so important.

The first two of these hearings are being held in Portland, Oregon, at the Eliot Center. Both are on October 16.

  • The first will be held from 2:30 pm to 5:00 pm and is hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. (The event information for this one is available here.)
  • The second will be held in the same location 90 minutes later. It will run from 6:30 pm to 9 pm and will be hosted by the Oregon State Department of Energy. (The event information for this second one is here.)

The third hearing will be held on October 18 in Seattle, Washington, at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture. It runs from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm and will be hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. Information on this meeting is available here.

Trillions urges all concerned citizens in the area – and beyond, if possible – to attend one of these three critical meetings and make their voices heard.