by Jindan Chen*
What’s in Hanford’s backyard? What cleanup has been accomplished, and what are the current challenges? What can you do about Hanford? These questions were presented to the Feb 23 open forum here at Oregon State University about the former plutonium production facility in Hanford, Washington. Participants in the forum included representatives from the Oregon Department of Energy (Ken Niles), Washington Department of Ecology (John Price and Dieter Bohrmann) and the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board (Max S. Power).
Hanford, a 586-square-mile basin along the banks of the Columbia River in southeastern Washington State, was transformed to a plutonium production site as part of the Manhattan Project for building the atomic bomb during the 1940s. A large complex of reactors and underground waste storage tanks were built in succession. Plutonium produced at Hanford was used for both the first atomic bomb called Gadget tested in Jornada del Muerto desert, New Mexico and the bomb called Fat Man dropped over Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II. The operation of Hanford site terminated in 1989 as the cold war ended.
Alongside the scientific excitement and dread about this new weapon of unprecedented magnitude was the suffering of human health and the deterioration of the environment. While plutonium fissions to release tremendous amount of energy, radiation generates genetic mutations which usually end up as cancers. To make matters worse, if these mutations occur in reproductive cells, potential diseases coded in mutated genes are able to take effects in future generations. The deleterious health effects of radioactivity have triggered numerous concerns with how to dispose of the remnant radioactivity in the decommissioned plutonium production site. The rate of incurrence of cancer around the nuclear sites through contaminated fish was among the topics of great concerns at the forum.
The cleanup work has turned out to be extremely complex. The biggest challenge has been the lack of technology in handling the nuclear waste, as one representative John Price, a geologist and hydrogeologist, emphasized “we don’t have the technology today to deal with it“. At present, the main method to dispose of nuclear debris is to isolate it from outside surroundings by storing it in a geological repository. From Price’s presentation, it is clear that the strategy of geological repository gave rise to three questions—how can the high-level isolation of repository be assured, where is the ultimate geological repository, and how can the waste be transported to the repository safely?
Despite the serious environmental situation today, representatives introduced the key progress made through recent efforts. The crucial step in Hanford cleanup was the Tri-Party Agreement signed among the Washington Department of Ecology, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy on May 15, 1989. The major accomplishments of cleanup done within the framework based on the agreement center on the soil removal and groundwater treatment. 900,000 tons of contaminated soil has been transported to Hanford’s onsite disposal cells. A new groundwater treatment system was installed near the Columbia River. According to one speaker Max Power, a government consultant and author, right now the Columbia River is suitable for all purposes. Future efforts would continue to focus on treating groundwater waste and debris in underground tanks.
Aside from the technological challenge is the need for high levels of funding and a long time period with an estimate of forty years. The speakers argued that this urgently requires more public concern. They say that this is where we can do something about Hanford—to engage more people, and get/stay informed. One aspect of Hanford’s efforts to reach out to the public is the webpage of “Find a Mentor” in http://inheritinghanford.com. If you are interested in learning more about Hanford, you could even get your own mentor.
The fast-paced Youtube clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUotagJ-tFM), shown at the start of the open forum, provided us with a quick snapshot of Hanford cleanup problem—including the site history, the state of cleanup, current issues and progress, and how this site affects you. But even after being equipped with such key categories as geological repository, onsite reprocessing, and plant demolition, I am left with questions. I wonder whether it is possible for speakers to extract some simple, broad impressions from the complicated technological puzzles, so that we might be capable of getting to the heart of the main challenge more easily and picking up the general cleanup categories in a coherent frame. Thus we might get a rough idea of how the radioactive level on site is lowered, how the contaminated ground water is purified, and how much what we want to do is thwarted because we lack the know-how to achieve it.
*Jindan Chen is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University.