DOE Hanford B Reactor Today
DOE Hanford B Reactor, by United States Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons

As part of atomic weapons development during the secretive Manhattan Project, Hanford B Reactor at the Hanford site, produced the plutonium that filled the belly of the ‘Fat Man‘ atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. Hanford reached peak production during the Cold War years, and it also produced material for weapons during President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative in the early 80s.

In 1989, Hanford switched to cleanup efforts. While mostly decommissioned, the site hosts one nuclear power generating station, called the Columbia Generating Station, that has a boiling water reactor, supplied by General Electric (GE).

Hanford Nuclear Reservation remains the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere, and is a superfund site that, after nearly a quarter of a century has Pacific Northwest residents and officials pressing for answers. The amount of contamination is astonishing, involving 56 million gallons of liquid radioactive sludge in underground containers, six of which have been determined to be leaking. The cleanup is now estimated to take 40 years, at a cost of 100 billion dollars.

Hanford is located in Richland, in southeastern Washington State, at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. Due to the site’s location on the Columbia, residents are justifiably concerned for the future of the spectacular Columbia River and the Columbia River Valley. Commenting on the complexity of cleanup, the United States Environmental Protection Agency states:

The operations at Hanford created one of the largest and most complex cleanup projects in the U.S. Weapons production resulted in more than 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste, and over 130 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris. Approximately 475 billion gallons of contaminated water was discharged to the soil. Some of the contaminants have made it to groundwater under the site. Over 80 square miles of groundwater is contaminated to levels above groundwater protection standards.

To digress for a moment, it is nearly impossible to conceive of the magnitude of something we have not experienced. What do these numbers mean? Contemplating a billion of anything is like contemplating outer space; there is a point where the mind renders the numbers meaningless. Some EPA water trivia adds perspective to the stunning amount of waste:

Approximately 400 billion gallons of water are used in the United States per day.

Nearly one-half of the water used by Americans is used for thermoelectric power generation.

In one year, the average American residence uses over 100,000 gallons (indoors and outside).

It takes six and a half years for the average American residence to use the amount of water required to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool (660,000 gallons).

The United States Department of Energy (USDOE) oversees the bulk of the management for Hanford cleanup, and the US Environmental Protection Agency lists several government superfund site partners here. There are also various government contractors that manage the tank farms and other cleanup processes. Despite government and news agency statements to the contrary, residents have come to realize that: 1) cleanup has not progressed as thought 2) tanks are leaking 3) Hanford officials hid leak evidence from advisory panel 4) the site poses safety hazards to the workers.

With that in mind and turning attention to Bechtel National Incorporated as one example, Hanford can be viewed as a poster child for everything that is wrong with predatory capitalism and influence peddling. In what now looks to be a betrayal of trust, billions of dollars have poured into flawed efforts at cleanup, over a number of years. Dr. Walt Tamosaitis, who is featured in the Vimeo clip, was fired from Bechtel for being a Hanford whistleblower and expressing (fifty) technical and safety concerns, “challenging one of their programs for which they were trying to get 5 million dollars in fee.”

Bechtel National is a Department of Energy (DOE) contractor that is “charged with the design, construction, and start up of the Waste Treatment Plant at the Site.” In an article titled Hanford Nuclear Waste Cleanup Plant May Be Too Dangerous, Scientific American explains:

The plant’s construction, currently contracted by the DoE to Bechtel National, Inc., may be the most complicated engineering project underway in the U.S. But back in 2000 the DoE and Bechtel decided to save time and money by starting construction before crucial structures and processes had been designed and properly tested at a scale comparable to full operation. This wasn’t such a good idea, says Dirk Dunning, nuclear material specialist with the Oregon Department of Energy. “The worst possible time to save money is at the beginning. You’re better off to be very nearly complete on design before you begin construction.

After Dr. Tamosaitisis’s abrupt termination for doing the right thing, he made what he describes as the most important phone call of his life, and became involved with Hanford Challenge, a Seattle non-profit group that seeks to “help create a future for Hanford that secures human health and safety, advances accountability, and promotes a sustainable environmental legacy.”

Hanford Challenge’s current stated focus is on getting new tanks to the site.

Is the Columbia River at risk? Goddamn right it is. This is a situation we will be watching.


Additional References (there are many):

The Hanford Story: Cleanup
-This is a video overview of how the contaminated waste is currently stored, and the steps that must happen for cleanup, ie, the vitrification process.

One of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Hanford Week reports. pdf here.

BBC On This Day, August 9, 1945

Hanford Superfund Site History

Nuclear waste leak in Wash. “scandalous,” expert says

Hanford History overview.

This week in the news:

Questions, answers on Hanford Nuclear Reservation

State ready to take action over leaking Hanford nuclear waste tank

Firedoglake (If you have posted and are not listed please let me know so I can link your post, thank you.):



Firedoglake blogger Gregg Levine. Gregg has followed Fukushima, and has addressed many issues in the various nuclear sites.

Boxturtle, at Over Easy: Monday Science

hat tip to my parents, Ray and Letty Owings, ages 90 and 88 and longtime Seattle residents, who suggested today’s topic.