Hanford Accident Reminds Us of the Staggering Cost of America’s Nuclear Waste

May 11 2017

Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently called it “one of the most polluted sites that we have in this country.”

So, after a 20-foot stretch of tunnel used to store highly contaminated radioactive material at the massive Hanford nuclear waste and treatment facility in Washington State collapsed on Tuesday, federal and state officials were on high alert, and thousands of technicians and other employees were ordered to “take cover.”

The gaping hole in the lengthy tunnel was later filled with clean soil and temporarily closed to outsiders. There were no reported injuries and no indication that radioactive material had escaped into the atmosphere, the Department of Energy and the White House said.

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“Dedicated experts on the ground are looking closely at what next steps should be taken with respect to mitigating future tunnel breaches,” White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday. But Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, called the accident “serious” and stressed the importance of ensuring the safety of the workers and surrounding community.

The tunnel collapse was the first of its kind at Hanford. It provided a fresh reminder of long-standing safety and spending concerns about how the Departments of Energy and Defense manage nuclear waste cleanup activities throughout the country.

The government has had a spotty record on safety where federal nuclear power and weapons production have contaminated the environment. Last year alone, the government’s liabilities for cleaning up contaminated sites totaled $447 billion, according to Treasury Department figures. That was more than double the $212 billion estimated price tag in 1997.

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The Hanford facility in south-central Washington State is one of those costly relics of the U.S. nuclear weapons buildup during the Cold War. It first gained notoriety in 1943, when it took part in the Manhattan Project and helped develop the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.

Hanford has operated since 1989 cleaning up and storing more than 110,000 tons of spent plutonium fuel that was used at one time to operate nine nuclear reactors along the Columbia River.

The government spends about $2.3 billion annually operating the processing and storage facility and has poured more than $19 billion into developing new processing and storage tanks, but with little to show for it.

The tunnel that partially collapsed on Tuesday is one of two used at the site for storage that connects with the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility or PUREX – a now defunct facility that was once used to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.

The aging tunnel was constructed out of wood and concrete and is covered in eight feet of soil. It was originally designed to hold rail cars for carrying equipment for use in processing plutonium, and some of those contaminated cars are still in the sealed tunnels.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Washington Post yesterday that there is considerable cause for concern about the tunnel collapse, notwithstanding reassurances from government officials. “Collapse of the earth covering the tunnels could lead to a considerable radiological release,” he said.

In 1991, federal inspectors investigated a suspected leak at the site after an elevated contamination reading was found in a leak detection pit.  That same year, six tanks were found to be leaking radioactive waste.

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Some 3,000 employees on the sprawling site were ordered to seek shelter or remain in place after Tuesday’s accident was discovered. Experts say that exposure to plutonium and uranium, another radioactive element that may be present in dangerous levels in the tunnel, can be deadly to humans and animals.

While the Trump Administration is seeking major budget cuts at DOE as part of a larger effort to offset the cost of a $54 billion military buildup next year, that won’t affect the cleanup operations at Hanford, and other government managed nuclear waste dumps.  

The administration has requested $6.5 billion for DOE’s environmental management program for 2018. Hanford’s budget this year alone is about $2.3 billion, with much of that going to treating liquid nuclear waste.

There are five huge plants in the center of the Hanford Site that processed the 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors. That fuel production, in turn, discharged roughly 450 billion gallons of liquids to soil disposal sites and 56 million gallons of radioactive waste to 177 large underground tanks, the Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management stated.

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A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Hanford site examining risks and costs of operations noted, “The volume and complexity of the tank waste have been a persistent challenge for DOE.” The report said that the government had spent more than $19 billion on several different tank waste treatment strategies that have failed to pan out.

One of the problems is that much of the tank waste is “high-level waste” mixed with hazardous chemicals that, under current law, but be “vitrified” or immobilized in glass prior to being disposed of in the soil.

DOE has proposed building two new waste-treatment facilities on the site over the next six to eight years, at an estimated cost of $1 billion, that would store both “high-level” and “low-level” hazardous waste.

But GAO complained that the energy department’s preliminary cost and schedule estimates for the construction are “not reliable” because they “do not meet industry best practices for reliable cost and schedule estimates.”