Roll On, Columbia, But Don't Glow


Special to the Progressive Populist

Throughout recorded history the power and majesty of the Columbia River has awed both native and visitor to the Pacific Northwest. From the native American shaman to folk singer Woody Guthrie "the misty, crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray" has both captivated the imagination and inspired dreams.

Today, however, potentially the greatest ecological disaster in modern times, if not in American history, is only a few short years and a few hundred yards away from taking place on the mighty Columbia River, the environmental linchpin of the Pacific Northwest.

Lying next to the river, some 200 miles east northeast of Portland, Oregon, is the 560-square-mile federal installation known as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. While only ten percent of the land is actually being used to house nuclear facilities the remainder of the land remains unused and untouched.

Here, where the Columbia River flows through Hanford, remains the only part of the river that has not had its flow and speed altered by mankind. Yet that such wildlife exists naturally within the same area of land as the nuclear reservation, creates what one environmentalist has called "the environmental paradox" of the Hanford site.

For on this site of the nation's foremost nuclear-weapons plant with the largest concentration of radioactive waste in the world, 54 million gallons of radioactive waste, in liquid, sludge and dried-salt forms, remains stored in 177 earthquake-vulnerable underground tanks only a few hundred meters from the Columbia.

Of those, 149 are made of a single shell of steel, and about 68 have already begun leaking, releasing about 900,000 gallons of such waste into the soil. The oldest tanks are more than 50 years old, and all the single-shell tanks are expected to leak eventually. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which manages the reservation, had said for decades that no waste from the tanks would reach the ground water in the next 10,000 years at least, but it is already there and it is moving inexorably toward the nearby Columbia.

The waste that is known to have leaked includes plutonium, uranium, strontium, cesium, tritium and technicum. A recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) study of the Hanford situation notes casually that "some of these materials will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years." Plutonium itself has a half-life (deteriorating to 50 percent of its present toxicity) of 25,000 years.

In addition, in what is called the Hanford K Basins, some 2300 tons of spent nuclear fuel awaiting the final stages of chemical processing have been in storage since the DOE's 1992 decision to deactivate plutonium production at Hanford.

Spent fuel rods from the former reactor were placed in two indoor pools at the site of two other defunct reactors. Now, not only are the more than 7000 cylindrical metal canisters deteriorating, but those in the K East Basin are open, exposing spent fuel directly to cooling water, the basin floors coated with contamination sludges.

These basins, constructed in the 1950s, with a design life of 20 years, sit approximately 400 yards from the banks of the Columbia and are deteriorating. One basin, K East, in the 1970's leaked more than 15 million gallons alone of radioactive contaminated water.

In fact, the pollution of the Columbia at Hanford has already begun, for when the plant was fully operational it was releasing contaminants into the river primarily due to the routine operation of its eight plutonium production nuclear reactors that used river water for cooling.

Unlike commercial nuclear reactors, where cooling water is not released back to the source, the Hanford reactors operated on a "once through cooling system" where water from the Columbia ran through pipes in the core of the reactors and then directly back to the river. The cooling water was laden with radioactive materials upon its return to the river.

The last of these reactors using this type of cooling mechanism was shut down in January 1971. Additional contaminants were also released into the river during reactor purges when a radioactive film would build up inside the reactors pipes that had to be chemically cleaned out and later flushed into the river.

If all this contamination wasn't bad enough there is also the fact that Hanford during its heyday of manufacturing the ingredients for the nation's nuclear arsenal produced some 450 billion gallons of liquid nuclear waste. Yet only 54 million gallons were put into tanks, the rest being dumped into the ground through about 300 cribs/ponds, and trenches that now await final cleanup. The GAO estimates that the groundwater under more than 85 square miles of the site is contaminated above current standards.

Groundwater pollution, however, is only one of the ways over the years that the Hanford operation has managed to poison the environment. Between 1944 and 1972, Hanford released as much as 740,000 curies of the hazardous radioactive byproduct iodine-131 into the air. For comparison, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant partial core meltdown in 1979 released 15 curies of radioactive iodine-131 into the air; the Chernobyl accident released 35 million to 49 million curies of iodine-131 in 1986.

What makes the lurking Hanford disaster even more shocking is the inability and seeming unwillingness of the DOE to move significantly to prevent it.

The GAO, for example, cities that the DOE's "understanding of how waste moves through the so-called vadose zone to the ground water is inadequate to make key technical decisions on how to clean up the wastes at the Hanford site in an environmentally sound and cost-effective manner." The vadose zone is a 200-300 foot thick layer of soil made up of sand, silt, and gravel above a layer of volcanic rock between the waste tanks and the ground water.

Sufficient knowledge of how the waste moves through the zone is vitally important for when the tanks finally are pumped out and their contents turned into glass -- which will not make them any less toxic, just less mobile -- for burial in the proposed Nevada Yucca Mountain repository DOE officials plan to subject the tank shells to high pressure sluicing to get all the remaining solids out of them. However, critics point out, that could only exacerbate matters by pumping more radioactive liquid into the ground water.

According to the GAO, the lack of adequate knowledge about such factors as the vadose zone serious threaten the clean-up. For example, since the surface soil has become contaminated, engineers decided to spread clean gravel on top to reduce the exposure of workers. The gravel, however, only increased the flow of rainwater through the contaminated dirt, thus washing radioactivity toward the Columbia River even faster. Had not the gravel been spread there, surface dirt or plants might have absorbed the water and allowed it to evaporate without percolating through the soil.

Members of Congress, environmental groups, the National Research Council and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board have urged the DOE in the past to study whether the radioactive waste from the tanks could reach the ground water, yet the DOE never followed through on such studies, nor allocated the necessary funding to get the answers, according to the GAO.

As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer pointed out in a March 26 editorial:

"Instead, DOE Hanford managers armed with willful ignorance and flawed computer models clung to the conflicting theory that the vadose zone would absorb and halt any movement of the contamination before it reached the water. The worst of it is that DOE managers had no scientific basis for that belief."

One persistent critic of the DOE's handling of the Hanford situation has been Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) whose state borders the Columbia. "The Department of Energy has been sticking its head in the contaminated sand, for years, years. The department's official story was that contamination stopped a few feet beneath the tanks, and even when they got samples from the bore holes drilled near the tanks, that showed contamination at much deeper levels, they argued that the contamination could have been pushed down by the drilling," he said.

Hanford's DOE managers only reluctantly acknowledged the presence of tank waste in the ground water as recently as November 1997, based on work performed by two "whistle blowers" who had previously been penalized for making safety complaints.

Unfazed by such alarm and outrage, Ernest Moniz, the undersecretary of energy, reported that on a trip to Hanford in January he had explored the problem and found that "the vadose zone is intellectually virgin territory." But he did not place blame. "I did not attempt any human archaeology to trace the source of the problem."

In fact, an advisory panel has told the DOE that the government employees who manage what it called the most dangerous and polluted nuclear weapons site in the country fear for their careers if they raise safety concerns, as Hanford has no system to analyze safety problems and deal with them before they reach the critical stage.

The panel, appointed by former energy secretary Federico Pena, to review operations at the nuclear reservation was established after the Government Accountability Project, complained to the Energy Department in August, 1997.

The panel reported that "external credibility issues continue" with government statements about leaks from the tanks. DOE has consistently blamed many of Hanford's problems on the headlong rush in the Cold War to produce nuclear weapons at any price, but the advisory panel's report attributed the credibility problems to current management.

Tom Carpenter, a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project, which has handled the cases of numerous workers around the country who say they have been mistreated for raising safety issues at DOE plants, said that most of those were employees of contractors. The Hanford case, he said, is "unusual and alarming to us," because the problems were in the much smaller community of government managers, who are supposed to set an example for contractor employees by emphasizing safety.

Carpenter, while agreeing the advisory panel's allegations were similar to those his group had made, pointed out "what they've got here is the right diagnosis and no remedy."

Casting a long shadow over the whole Hanford debacle is also the potential cost of the cleanup process. DOE's most recent estimate, according the the GAO, made in 1998, is that it will cost about $50 billion (in current dollars) to "retrieve the wastes from the tanks, separate the wastes into low-level and high-level portions, and prepare the low-level wastes for disposal at the site and the high-level wastes for disposal in a geologic repository." In fiscal year 1997, the program cost about $314 million. In fiscal year 1998, DOE expects to spend about $332 million on the program. .

Some outside critics in the environmental movement have speculated, however, that if history is any lesson the costs of cleanup at Hanford could reach the $150 billion mark before it is completed in an estimated 75 years. The cleanup, for example, of the K Basin pools was originally set at $814 million with a completion date of 2003. It is now estimated that it may take until 2006 at a cost of $1.088 billion to finish the project.

The plight of the Columbia, the 1,200-mile waterway linking four western states and southeastern British Columbia, will be the focus of an extensive pastoral letter project launched recently by the seven Catholic bishops of the Northwest and Canada whose dioceses are directly affected by the river.

The project will apply Catholic social teaching to the complex economic, environmental and social realities surrounding the river in addition to addressing the importance of living for the common good. It will culminate in a pastoral letter to be issued by the bishops in the year 2000. It is expected that the highly consultative process and the letter itself will contribute to constructive problem-solving focused on the people and many concerns surrounding the river.

With such a catastrophic ecological tragedy looming on the immediate horizon as one of the world's great rivers, the Columbia, could well become a radioactive nightmare, an essay by the popular novelist E.L. Doctorow in the March, 1974 issue of Playboy seems intensely prophetic.

In "The Bomb Lives" Doctorow peered into a future built and dependent on nuclear forms of security and energy and warned us of its possible promise.

"Conceivably, under the right circumstances, we may someday in our nuclear industry lose to the earth just the amount of radiant material necessary to effect a chain reaction. And then the failure of our vaunted adaptation will blaze upon us that what happened to the bomb was that it became the earth, and the earth became the bomb."

A.V. Krebs of Everett, Wash., is a resident of the Pacific Northwest.

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