What happens if we can't clean up the mistakes of our nuclear past?

At Washington’s Hanford nuclear site, failing infrastructure and make-do plans as the West prepares for a new round of radioactivity.

The vitrification plant will convert high-level radioactive waste into a stable glass form for storage. (Photo courtesy of Hanford Vit Plant)

The Hanford nuclear complex in eastern Washington lies in a green-gold sagebrush steppe, so big you can’t see the edges of it and shimmery in the summer heat. The only landmarks are low-slung buildings on the horizon and ancient sand dunes scrubbed bare when the glaciers melted. There’s almost no trace that this is the biggest nuclear waste dump in the country. The scale of nuclear waste is like that: sprawling out into the metaphysical distance, too big for the human mind to hold.

That’s what John Price tells me. He’s the tri-party agreement section manager with the Washington Department of Ecology, which regulates Hanford, the site of the country’s first plutonium production plant. (The other two parties are the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.) On a sweltering June evening, we stand on the edge of the site’s central plateau, wind buffeting our faces as we stare at the bony frame of the future vitrification plant. If you were to pull a shot glass full of liquid out of one of the tanks buried near us, it would kill everyone within 100 yards instantly. And the danger would not disappear: Plutonium, one of the components of that poisonous soup, has a half-life of 24,100 years. The plant is supposed to start processing the most toxic waste in 2036. But construction has stalled, and most of the waste sits in underground tanks, some of which have begun to fail. “Suppose all these things are starting to fall apart faster than we can clean them up,” Price says. “It becomes a really interesting moral question.”

Over the ridge north of us, the Columbia River curves around the site, appearing motionless until you get close and see how much water is pushing past the banks. Over the past year, a series of accidents has put the spotlight on Hanford, its aging infrastructure and the lack of a long-term solution. In May 2017, part of the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, which holds rail cars full of solid waste, collapsed. Later that year, workers tearing down the Plutonium Finishing Plant were contaminated with plutonium and americium particles when an open-air demolition went wrong. In December, others inhaled radioactive dust at the same site, halting work indefinitely. Then, in June of this year, the Department of Energy (DOE), which is responsible for the site, released a proposal to reclassify some of the high-level waste as less toxic, with what’s called a “Waste Incidental to Reprocessing” evaluation, so they could clean it up sooner and more cheaply.

“There’s a lot more work to do than there is money to get it accomplished,” Price said. “We’ve really come to a fork in the road.”

Across the country, big energy companies are considering a move from coal to nuclear-fueled plants even as sites like Hanford remain mired in many-decades-long cleanups of radioactive landscapes. As the possibility of more waste looms, Hanford has become a flashpoint for people who fear that there’s no safe way to deal with our nuclear legacy. In this era of climate change and large-scale environmental degradation, the site raises the question: Can we ever clean up the mistakes of our past?

IN FEBRUARY 1945, Col. Franklin Matthias, the eager young civil engineer who directed construction of Hanford, took a train to Los Angeles to hand-deliver the first 100-gram plutonium plug fabricated at the site to a courier from Los Alamos, New Mexico. It would become the core of bombs like the Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki that August. As he handed off the hockey puck-sized object, he told the courier it cost $300 million to make.

The production of those pucks would prove to cost far more than even Matthias could have calculated, mostly due to the radioactive detritus they left behind. The Government Accountability Office estimates cleaning up Hanford could total more than $100 billion. Since 1989, when Hanford was first designated as a Superfund site, 889 buildings have been demolished, 18.5 million tons of debris have been put in controlled landfills, and 20 billion gallons of groundwater have been treated. With three decades of work, the scope of the problem has been greatly reduced, but the really toxic stuff is still on site. The groundwater beneath Hanford is never going to be clean enough to drink, thanks to a cocktail of chemicals: strontium-90, which deteriorates marrow in the bones of humans and animals and takes 300 years to break down; hexavalent chromium, which mutates salmon eggs; and technetium-99, which dissolves like salt in water and has a half-life of 211,000 years.

inside of tank
Inside one of the tanks at Hanford, where the cleanup operation continues. (Photo courtesy of River Protection Solutions)

The 586 square miles of sage still hold the 324 Building, home to highly radioactive nuclear containment chambers called hot cells, less than 1,000 feet from the Columbia and right across from the town of Richland, where many of the Hanford workers live. In the central plateau, where the ghostly vitrification plant stands, the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility holds 1,936 radioactive cesium and strontium capsules currently kept in a glorified swimming pool. If an earthquake were to crack the pool, or the water supply were to run dry, those isotopes, physically hot and linked to bone cancer, would spread quickly.

The knotty heart of the cleanup is the tank farm, on the central plateau, where 56 million gallons of high-level waste — the official term for the long-lived radioactive material leftover from plutonium production — sit in 177 underground tanks. Each tank holds a unique mixture of sludge, solid, supernate liquid and crusty salt cake — a witch’s brew of 1,800 different chemicals that are buzzing, off-gassing and breaking down. Sixty-seven of the 149 carbon-steel single-shell tanks and one of the newer 28 double shells have leaked, but the Energy Department refuses to build new ones, and every year the time frame for cleanup gets longer.

“If you think it’s nearly intractable, that’s because it is,” said Randy Bradbury, communications director at Washington’s Department of Ecology, one of the three parties that regulate the site. “The biggest mind-boggling thing about it is that we’re all going to be dead before this is cleaned up.” That time span challenges our decision-making, which is much more suited to responding to accidents than to multigenerational cleanup projects. Philosopher Timothy Morton categorizes nuclear weapons, waste and explosions (not to mention climate change and the longevity of Styrofoam cups) as “hyperobjects” — real-life objects that are too large in time and space for humans to fully grasp. How, then, can we calculate all their costs?

The Department of Energy spends billions of dollars on the cleanup each year; it has a $2.4 billion budget this year. But those billions are barely enough to keep the wheels on, and the Government Accountability Office estimates that the last 15 percent of the cleanup could be as expensive as the first 85 percent, which has already taken 30 years. Maintaining the tanks alone costs $300 million a year, and the minimum amount needed to keep things safe increases as time goes on and infrastructure ages. There currently isn’t enough federal funding to meet cleanup benchmarks, and no money has been allocated for accidents like the tunnel collapse that contaminated workers.

At the current rate of funding and cleanup, the DOE’s Richland office, which manages most of the site, falls another year behind schedule every two years, and the Office of River Protection, which oversees the tank waste, slips back a year every three. Last year, President Donald Trump proposed slashing the budget for Hanford cleanup by $230 million.

IF YOU'RE A CIVILIAN, one of the only ways to get a close look at the hyperobject that is the complex cleanup process is to score a seat on one of the Department of Energy’s annual cleanup tours. On a sun-beaten summer day, I boarded an overly air-conditioned short bus packed with retirement-aged folks. Joe Guyette, the volunteer tour guide, has worked at Hanford since 1973; before that, he was in the Army, where he says he got the better part of a lifetime’s dose of radiation. He does these tours to try to allay negative perceptions of Hanford and show the public just how complicated the cleanup is.

“It’s clear that sometimes they haven’t been careful,” Guyette says. “They get criticized about it, but they’re doing the best they can.”

Guyette took us on a tour of the water treatment plant, where we talked about those groundwater plumes. We drove by the cocooned reactors and the dark, hulking plutonium finishing plant, hoping to get a sense what is actually worth being scared of, what constitutes cleanup, and how nuclear waste changes over time. He took us to a three-quarter-scale mock-up of the tank farms, because it’s impossible to go near the real ones, and we watched videos of water cannons trying to scour the tarry waste off the inside of the tanks.

Cleaning up the tank farm requires moving the waste out of the single-shell tanks, which are each as wide across as a tennis court and can hold up to a million gallons of waste, and into the sturdier double-shell tanks. From there, it will — theoretically — be vitrified, or turned into glass, at the as-yet-unbuilt vitrification plant and then sent to the stalled-out proposed federal nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, or to another long-term storage facility. Every step is excruciatingly complex. The massive tanks were designed to hold radioactive materials, not release them, so any material in these tanks has to come out through a pipe just 12 inches around. Challenges like this have forced Hanford managers to invent every step of the cleanup process, from how to sample the contents to how to keep video cameras from burning up in the radioactive heat inside. It’s a constant guessing game, where the questions of how to store the waste and neuter its effects change endlessly. That’s why in June, the Energy Department proposed reclassifying the remaining high-level waste in the C section of the tank farm as low-activity waste, and then filling the tanks with grout to stabilize the remaining 66,000 gallons of waste, so it could be kept onsite permanently. The department thinks that it would be safe enough to close the door on the tank cleanup once the grout is in, except for long-term monitoring.

According to the tri-party agreement that governs the cleanup, the Energy Department is currently required to get 99 percent of the waste out of the tanks and vitrify it, but Sherri Ross of the department says the definition of high-level waste overlooks the fact that much of the waste is no longer very toxic. They’ve taken 1.7 million gallons of waste out of the C Farm tanks, or about 96 percent. Of the residual that’s left, the bulk of the material has less than a 30-year half-life, so it’s already become half as radioactive.

nuclear caution sign
In this March 6, 2013 file photo, a warning sign is shown attached to a fence at the C Tank Farm at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, near Richland, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The move has resurfaced a question that has plagued Hanford experts for years: Is it better to do a decent job now, or the best job later?

Some people believe a fast response may be safer than a slower, more thorough response. “Until all the waste is out of those tanks, it’s almost inevitable that more of them will leak,” Bradbury says. The tanks, built starting in the 1940s, were designed to safely contain waste for up to 40 years on the assumption that we’d have figured out a long-term plan by then. But we haven’t, at Hanford or anywhere else.

High-level waste was never supposed to stay on site permanently. The waste from the tanks is intended to be vitrified, turned into glass rods, then sent to a federal repository, where it would sit, isolated, forever.

But that repository doesn’t exist yet, and it’s possible that it never will. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1987 designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the spot to store the waste. Despite $15 billion spent studying the site, and a growing cost to hold the waste at other sites, plans for Yucca have been in limbo for decades, in large part because of opposition from Nevadans, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who don’t want the waste transported through or stored in their state. A bill to reopen Yucca passed the U.S. House of Representatives as recently as May, but failed in the Senate.

“We’ve made stuff that will be dangerous for millennia and we deal with it in two-year congressional cycles,” said William Kinsella, a North Carolina State University professor whose research includes nuclear weapons cleanup. “We don’t want to make hasty decisions, but it’s a chokepoint for nuclear constipation.”

That has created expensive and dangerous blockages throughout the nuclear waste management system. Without a place to send waste, the cleanup at Hanford has no real endgame. Because of the long-term impossibility, the Hanford Advisory Board — a coalition of tribal members, community volunteers and government workers who advise the agencies that manage the site — is constantly worried that the funds might dry up while the tanks are still full. The fear of slashed funding, and the cleanup’s long delay, is part of what drove the Department of Energy to consider grouting.

But the proposal worries watchdog groups, who are concerned about shortsighted cost-saving measures that could put surrounding communities at lasting risk by keeping 700,000 gallons of waste that’s currently classified as high-level, and that might ultimately leak to the river on site. “What the DOE is proposing is to make the Hanford site a high-level waste repository in all but name,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, an environmental advocacy group. “That does not belong in an agriculture zone in a major river system in an earthquake zone.”

LEAVING WASTE, EVEN IF IT'S CONTAINED, has proved a hard sell with the public. In meetings over the plan in October, people pointed to past failures. “The history of Hanford is one of wishful thinking,” one speaker told the assembled experts. That distrust has roots in the site’s constantly troubled cleanup efforts, as well as experts’ failure to account for the many ways its dangers manifest.

Ross explained to a room full of gray heads why her people at the Energy Department thought they could do it safely. “Your concern is what if we’re wrong,” she said to the crowd. “I hear that.”

She says they’ll look at how the closed system is going to perform over the long term. Their model goes to 1,000 years, but they’ll also consider what might happen in 10,000 years, and model out to the half-life of plutonium, 24,000 years. They plan to use what they call “institutional controls” — signs, gates and infrastructure — to keep people away from the waste for 100 years.

pools at hanford
The water around the cesium and strontium capsules in the pools at Hanford glows an eerie shade of blue in an effect known as the Cherenkov Glow. The light comes from radioactive cesium and strontium decay. (Photo courtesy of Department of Energy)

But people close to Hanford argue there are too many unanswered questions. For example: If there’s a leak 100 years in the future, will the government have money to deal with it? What happens if people are trying to farm at Hanford in 100 years? Or 1,000 years? How do you tell people in 200 years not to disturb the soil? How can you be sure they’ll understand the same things we do — the same language, the same symbols?

“When I hear people say things like, ‘This will never happen,’ I really want to caution them,” Rod Skeen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation told the Hanford Advisory Board. He says that traditional water uses, like fishing and sweat lodges, mean the tribe’s exposure is different than what the Energy Department might assume exposure looks like. Tribes have historic treaty rights to hunting and fishing grounds within the site, and they’ve asked the DOE not to reclassify waste in the past, because of concerns about how that waste would trickle down into the ecosystem, and their food system.

Those kinds of low-probability but high-risk odds have created an environment that University of Washington professor Shannon Cram calls “the politics of impossibility.” How do you navigate a situation where safety is impossible to promise? The people in charge of caring for Hanford are trying to prevent unknown future problems, and fix past generations’ mistakes. But in the face of a budget crunch and an overwhelming cleanup, it’s nearly impossible to know what’s right.

Cram, who has studied the long-term public health effects of Hanford, says it’s likely that Hanford will never be completely clean, and that, if some waste is always going to remain in the ground, the real challenge is deciding what an acceptable level of exposure is.

“I think it’s really misleading to call it cleanup,” Cram says. “It’s not clean, it’s contained and monitored.” Cram remains concerned about the possibility of disaster being passed on to future generations. “The brewing threat doesn’t get enough attention, because a lot of it is looming in the future,” she says. “We basically as a country have to learn how to have the appropriate amount of fear.”

THE LATE SUMMER LIGHT slips out as we drive back to town, passing historic tribal hunting grounds and driving by the beach where Price likes to launch his boat to paddle on the Columbia. We trace the edge of the 195,000-acre Hanford Reach National Monument within the site, where 43 new-to-science plant and insect species were found during a Nature Conservancy survey in the ’90s.

I ask Price what he thinks the worst-case scenario might be, and he says there are two things that keep him up at night. The first is a dramatic natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a fire, that would damage the fragile infrastructure and cause a massive spill. The site sits at the drought-prone edge of the Cascadia subduction zone, so both are likely. The week before our visit, a fire burned 2,500 acres here, and we can still smell the charred sage. But Price’s second fear is about the equally insidious threat people pose to themselves: A lack of long-term protection and the erosion of care. He says the paradox of Hanford is trying to convince people that the site is safe now, but that in 500 — or 1,000 — years, it might not be, and that we have to make decisions with those unknown risks in mind.

“I’m not really worried about today, broad-scale, but I’m worried about the future,” he says, when we stop on the north side of the river and look back toward the hulking shells of the former reactors. “I don’t want to sensationalize the groundwater plumes or the collapses, but the no-Yucca solution is a real threat.”

As Price thinks about the cleanup’s future, he’s concerned that we can’t see the limit of what might happen here, in a worst-case scenario. And he worries that the fear of nuclear waste’s slippery threat will fade, even if the threat itself doesn’t, or that controls will loosen as people become overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.

To fix our past mistakes, we need to have more foresight than the people who came before us. But that’s nearly impossible. In the 1940s, Hanford scientists faced an immediate fear by creating weapons that ended a war but left an unplanned toxic legacy. Today, as we struggle to disentangle ourselves from energy sources that leave us with multigenerational problems like climate change, there’s little evidence for further-reaching imagination in our decision-making. It’s still impossible to know what we can’t see coming. And if we fail, this wastepile and more like it will remain our legacy, sitting in overlooked corners like the empty eastern Washington plains, for longer than humanity can comprehend — or even remember.   


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