RICHLAND, Wash. (KOIN) — It’s something to think about the next time you visit the Columbia Gorge.
The timeline for officials to clean up the biggest, most toxic nuclear waste site in the Western hemisphere is shrinking.
The race to clean up 56 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste sitting at the Hanford site, 230 miles east of Portland, becomes more urgent each year.
With an estimated price tag of $120 billion, and a theoretical deadline of 2047, cleanup efforts are continually stalled by obstacles including time, money, the danger of the task at hand, and the sheer vastness of the site.
Attempts to store liquid and solid radioactive waste from the 586 square-mile site – which supplied the plutonium for the bomb that ended WWII — have been failing for decades.
See the timeline: how we arrived at Hanford today
Some underground storage tanks filled with radioactive sludge from as early as the 1940s are slowly giving out, with 67 known to be leaking into the soil.
From its inception as a highly classified nuclear weapons development site, to the highest-producing plutonium site on earth, Hanford is a ghostly reminder of America’s nuclear past.
Although it hasn’t been in operation since 1987, the legacy of the plant, the Manhattan Project and the Cold War could continue to affect the lives of people living in the Northwest. If experts are right, the worst is yet to come.
1. Your Health and the River
One researcher employed by the state calls it the poster child for how difficult it is to deal with nuclear waste.
What we’re wondering, even 230 miles downstream in the Portland Metro Area, is what kind of effect radiation in the groundwater leading into the Columbia River could potentially have on our health.
“It gets into the organisms, like fish we that we eat, and so it would essentially degrade the health of the river, and be at some point, a threat to human health,” said Dr. John Howieson, Vice Chair of the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board.
Radioactivity levels in the river are still negligible, said Matt McCormick, Department of Energy Manager for Richland Operations Center at Hanford.
“Once it hits the river it basically disappears and is not a threat to human health or the environment downstream,” he said.
Howieson said the health risks to human health through ingestion are much more of a threat than simple exposure. For example, when isotopes were deposited on plants near the Chernobyl site near Pripyat, Ukraine, cows ate those plants and children drank milk from the cows, causing widespread deformities.
Ingestion through vaporization, as happened at the Hanford site in March 2014, is equally dangerous.
Twenty-six workers at Hanford became sick from inhaling chemical vapors while conducting a video examination of one of the tanks.
2. The tanks
For decades, waste generated from producing plutonium, the active element at the center of an atomic bomb, was stored in tanks consisting of a carbon steel shell surrounded by reinforced concrete
The runoff contains such proven cancer-causing elements as chromium, nitrites, and plutonium and is still sitting in some of the underground tanks.
In October 2012, the U.S. DOE released images confirming a double-shell tank, known as AY-102, was leaking through its inner shell.
“I think most of us felt that those double tanks were probably good for a long, long time. The fact that one of them failed really caught our attention,” said Howieson.
“If a catastrophic failure of [AY-102] occurred it would relay so much radioactivity into the soil it would eventually have a deleterious effect on the Columbia river,” said Howieson.
However, Hanford officials claim the contrary.
“We have not found any of the other double shell tanks to have a similar leak condition at this point in time,” said Department of Energy Office of River Protection spokesperson Kevin Smith.
“We run a very active double shell tank integrity program, which is a very comprehensive analysis, to ensure that they are safe.”
3. What’s really in the river water
Since the beginning of plutonium production, there has been radioactivity in the water.
During WWII, reactors were cooled with river water and low concentrations of minerals in the water became radioactive.
That water would either be pumped back into the river, simply dumped into the ground, stored in poorly lined storage tanks, or put into open trenches.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, radioactivity was detected as far as the mouth of the Columbia River, near Astoria, Ore., said Howieson.
Matt McCormick, Department of Energy Manager for Richland Operations Center at Hanford, said some uranium and a hydrogen isotope have made it to the river through contaminated groundwater.
4. Political action and inaction
The Advisory Committee on Uranium chose Hanford in the 1940s because of its remote location in the sagebrush of Central Washington.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden makes a cause out of keeping Hanford’s urgency among the top priorities of America’s chief lawmakers.
In April 2013, he challenged U.S. Energy Secretary (then-nominee) Ernest Moniz on whether he was satisfied with federal cleanup efforts. Moniz admitted he was not.
“This is the most contaminated piece of federal property,” said Wyden.
“It adjoins the lifeblood of our region, the Columbia River, and we’ve got to turn this around.”
Wyden called for more action from the DOE, and asked for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office into Hanford’s tank monitoring system after frustration over recurring problems.
5. ‘Solutions:’ the troubled vitrification plant
The DOE’s plan to dispose of the 56 million gallons of sludge safely is through a process called vitrification.
A $13 billion plant is under construction to turn the nuclear sludge into massive glass cylinders. However, the project has been plagued with delays, budget issues and major safety concerns.
Initially slated to begin construction in 1991 and complete by 1999, the project began construction in 2000 and was 60% complete by 2011.
Still, the DEO says they are on track.
McCormick said a large operation to remove contaminated soil and solid waste next to the river is nearing completion.
“We are also treating groundwater that is contaminated with radioactive contaminants,” he said.
How the ‘Vit Plant’ is supposed to work
Columbia Riverkeeper spokesperson Dan Serres claims the public should be starting to worry about the level of infiltration in the groundwater and the river.
“The department of ecology for the State of Washington acknowledges that there is nuclear waste that reaches the Columbia River from Hanford today,” he said.
6. Safety concerns and ‘whistleblower’ dismissals
When two former employees of DOE vitrification plant project subcontractor URS raised concerns over the likelihood of a major explosion on site, they claim they were unduly fired.
Nuclear engineer Walt Tamosaitis and former safety manager Donna Busche said they warned a catastrophic explosion – not unlike past disasters– was imminent if construction continued.
Busche said URS fired her to set a precedent for other employees with safety concerns.
“To summarily remove me from the projects sends a clear and present message to employees — that if you speak up — you will be fired,” said Busche.
Construction in one area of the vitrification plant, the pre-treatment facility, has since been halted altogether because of design flaws.
“If the explosion were severe enough, it would be released to the public, it would very similar to the explosion you saw at Fukushima,” said Tamosaitis.
“The waste treatment plant has technical issues,” said DOE Office of River Protection spokesperson Kevin Smith.
In an email statement, URS denied any retaliation against Busche and Tamosaitis.
“Ms. Busche’s employment was terminated for cause due to conduct and behavior issues unrelated to the safety concerns she raised.”
“We also disagree that there was any retaliation by URS against Dr. Tamosaitis.”
The company said staff are encouraged to raise safety concerns, and that there is zero tolerance for retaliation against “whistleblowers.”
More than 8,500 Hanford employees work on cleanup and disposal. Almost 2,400 work on the vitrification plant project, which has a goal of vitrifying all of the waste at the Hanford site by 2062.
Meanwhile, Smith said the Department of Energy is on track to meet a new 2022 completion deadline.
The 2047 deadline is still unconfirmed until the technical issues with the plant’s design are solved, he said.