Calling the 177 containers at the Hanford Nuclear Site in south-central Washington state that contain high-level radioactive waste “tanks” is not a very good description. Each of these so-called “tanks” — buried in a kind of a farm of well-manicured dirt — is roughly the size of a four-story apartment building. Collectively, the 177 containers hold about 56 million gallons of some of the most poisonous waste known to humankind.
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge group that’s been monitoring the site for decades, told the renowned writer Michael Lewis in a 2018 Vanity Fair article that the high-level waste is “incredibly dangerous stuff…If you’re exposed to it for even a few seconds you probably got a fatal dose.”
But, as described by Lewis, the aging tanks allow hydrogen gas to accumulate at the top, which as a result needs to be constantly vented so there is not a catastrophic explosion. . “There are Fukushima-level events that could happen at any moment,” Carpenter told Lewis. “You’d be releasing millions of curies of strontium 90 and cesium.”
But the enormous risks of the Hanford Nuclear Site — where plutonium was manufactured for America’s nuclear weapons from the device that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 right through the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s — are not all in the future. The legacy of improper waste dumping — on land and even into the magnificent Columbia River that flows past the plant — goes back decades. It was just three years ago the federal Department of Energy told nearby Native American tribes not to eat the fish they catch more than once a week. Downwind from the plant, according to Lewis’ article, residents have reported higher rates of cancer, miscarriages and genetic disorders during the history of the plant.
The Hanford Nuclear Site desperately needs a thorough clean-up and the removal of the high-level waste to a safe, sanctioned facility — a task that should have been done 30 years ago but has proved well beyond both the finances and the ingenuity of the federal government. A proper cleanup job at Hanford and the dozens of other sites across the United States where the government has stored its most dangerous nuclear waste will cost tens of billions of dollars – money that the Trump administration is determined not to spend.
This month, President Trump’s DOE backed an outrageous proposal — first unveiled in 2018 — to bypass the strict rules for handling and disposing of “high-level waste” at Hanford and other government sites by simply changing its classification. Under the new lower classification, the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste wouldn’t have to be sent to a safe, remote disposal site and instead would be covered where it is now, under a layer of concrete.
Experts say the federal government has no legal authority for such a move and — more importantly — it’s a non-solution that’s almost certain to fail, because the concrete barrier just isn’t up to the task of preventing radioactive pollution from contaminating the nearby Columbia, drinking-water source for much of the Pacific Northwest.
“If you have a ticking time bomb in your basement, pouring concrete only means that you now have an inaccessible ticking time bomb in your basement,” said Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear forensic expert and a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who has worked with me for years on a number of important radiation lawsuits.
Kaltofen said the biggest and most obvious flaw in the plan is that the while the radioactive waste at Hanford will remain a potential health hazard for hundreds and probably thousands of years, the concrete seal might only last for 100 years or so — and that’s a best-case scenario. “There’s a lot of concern that it won’t fail after 100 years but that it will fail on Day One, that the cement won’t seal and it immediately starts leaking,” he said.
Although the Department of Energy move hasn’t received a great deal of attention outside of the Pacific Northwest, the national ramifications could be enormous. The plan to downgrade the classification of the Hanford waste also applies to government nuclear waste sites in South Carolina and Idaho. Environmentalists are worried that the plan will trigger a more relaxed approach from the Trump administration to all of America’s ever-growing stockpile of radioactive waste, including the material created by more than 100 nuclear power plants.
“The Hanford nuclear site is riddled with earthquake faults, surrounded by active volcanoes, and has a major river system flowing through it and is not suitable for the storage of wastes that are toxic for millenia. DOE needs to comply with, not defy the law in order to protect current and future generations,” said Carpenter, the Hanford Challenge director, said in a statement issued after the DOE announcement.
Rather than the shallow graves for the radioactive wastes envisioned at Hanford, Kaltofen and other experts say the only safe and viable option would be to transport the material to a deep and geological stable disposal site, far from any populated areas. Exactly such a site — Yucca Mountain in Nevada — was identified by the federal government in 1987 but that plan has been all but abandoned, mainly because of political factors. DOE’s concrete burial plan would also presumably save the government tens of billions of dollars in disposal costs — but at what cost to the environment?
“It needs to be removed and placed in a geologic repository for nuclear waste,” Kaltofen said. He noted that the Hanford situation poses very similar risks to the notorious 1957 Russian nuclear-waste explosion at Kyshtym, who contaminated a wide area and is considered the world’s third worst atomic accident after Chernobyl and Fukushima.
That’s assuming the DOE’s harebrained scheme for Hanford ever comes to fruition. State and local officials are incensed and have questioned the federal government’s legal authority to make the reclassification.
“By taking this action, the administration seeks to cut out state input and move towards disposal options of their choosing, including those already deemed to be unsafe by their own assessments and in violation of the existing legally binding agreement,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (also a presidential candidate) said in a joint statement with the attorney general, Bob Ferguson. “We will consider all options to stop this reckless and dangerous action.”
“Essentially, stopping this requires that the law be enforced,” said Kaltofen, noting that the DOE move is likely to inspire a spate of lawsuits, which he believes are likely to succeed. That’s cold comfort because the situation never should have gotten to this point. If the Trump administration is looking to cut corners and save money, planting a nuclear time bomb by the banks of the Columbia River is about the worst move it could make.