Guest editorial by Elizabeth Odegaard, University of Washington 1st June 2012
SEATTLE, Washington – Located in the eastern part of the state of Washington, near the city of Richland, is the Hanford facility. The 586 square miles that comprise Hanford make up the most contaminated and radioactive site in the western hemisphere. Hanford was built out of the Manhattan Project during the nuclear arms race in WWII as the ideal location for producing the plutonium for an atomic bomb. Making it an ideal site was its close proximity to the cooling waters of the Columbia River and its relative isolation from major cities. So, in 1942, families, farmers, and three Native American tribes were evicted from their own land to make room for the construction of the Hanford facility. Because of the extreme secrecy and security of the project, those that were evicted had no idea why, other than that it was in the name of “the war effort”. And the site itself was virtually impenetrable by anyone that didn’t work there. By 1944 plutonium production was underway at Hanford and in 1945 the atomic bomb containing plutonium from Hanford was dropped on Nagasaki. The effects of Hanford are global, not only in terms of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb, but because of the far-reaching implications of what is now one of the most radioactive and contaminated sites in the world. At the time the facility was built, the future implications that a nuclear processing plant would have on the environment were not considered, but current generations are now dealing with the consequences of the short-sighted decision. This area of Washington is currently home to fruit orchards, farm and agriculture land, and recreational sports and camping which means that contamination and radiation have direct effects on the health of the region.
The history of Hanford is rife with tension; political, economic, and surrounding the health and safety of people and the environment. Hanford is currently managed under the Tri-Party Agreement which includes the United States Department of Energy, The United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington Department of Ecology. The tension and in-fighting over the distribution of money, and the power to make decisions, is endless. Coupled with the secrecy, distrust, and denial that has long been characteristic of Hanford, an effective clean-up process has so far been impossible. Each of these stake-holders is working toward different expectations of clean-up, under different budget constraints, and answering to different federal and state administrations. As a provision under the Tri-Party agreement, the Yakima nation represents the loudest Native American voice in the clean-up of Hanford but this has so far done little to truly further clean-up and speak for their specific rights. Many people, within each of these organizations, would agree that because of conflicting ideas of clean-up and pressures from outside forces, true collaboration is more or less impossible to achieve.
Plutonium production at Hanford continued until 1989 when the era of clean-up began. However, the challenge of clean-up is staggering. So far, only 2% of the radioactivity at Hanford has been immobilized. One of the biggest challenges is the 53 million gallons of nuclear waste stored in 177 underground tanks. A third of these tanks have leaked more than one million gallons of radioactive waste into the soil and groundwater that feeds into the Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. The method of “disposal” used so far at Hanford includes the dumping of waste into miles of poorly designed trenches on the site. The future of waste management at Hanford looks to the operation of a Vitrification Plant that will immobilize the waste in the form of glass, encapsulating it in a secure cylinder that can then be ‘safely’ stored. However, the design and construction of the plant has been inefficient, slow-going, and expensive, and won’t even begin operations for what is estimated to be at least another ten years. Hanford is now the most expensive clean-up program and the largest public works project in the United States.
Plutonium is a man-made element with a half-life of over 24,000 years. This means that once it enters the body, through inhalation, consumption of contaminated food/water, or exposure to the skin, it doesn’t leave. The radioactive waste produced during the processing of plutonium is extremely dangerous, as plutonium is not only a carcinogen but also a mutagenic, it poses a serious health risk with long-term consequences for generations to come. In addition to the plutonium waste, other toxic chemicals, like chromium, tritium, uranium, strontium-90, and tetrachloride, have already contaminated the groundwater at Hanford, and threaten the Columbia River. Workers at Hanford, during both production and clean-up, as well as those living ‘down-wind’ from the facility, and people who use the Columbia River for recreational purposes, all face the continued dangers of potential exposure or contamination by an endless list of toxic chemicals. There are countless cases of people with cancers, thyroid diseases, and other illnesses because of radiation exposure or chemical contamination at Hanford.
Safe levels of radiation and chemical exposure are based on a “reference man” a statistical starting point that realistically only represents a small portion of the population; and the portion least at risk because it is based on a healthy, young, white male. Children have at least a three times greater risk of cancer than adults, and women are more vulnerable than men. The federal standard of ‘safe exposure’ from the Department of Energy is the least stringent and allows for 3 deaths out of every 10,000 people due to radiation exposure. The Washington State standard is 1 death per 100,000 people. These competing standards further reflect the challenge of collaboration and the problem of disjointed leadership perspectives at Hanford.
Hanford, though in many ways seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, has the potential to continue to have relatively unseen, but far-reaching effects. An earthquake or a chemical reaction at the facility has the potential to cause a massive radiation release, contaminating the air and waters of the Columbia River. As the biggest river in the Pacific Northwest, contamination of the Columbia would easily impact the Pacific Ocean and the marine and human life that relies on it for survival. Through the bio-accumulation of contamination, would likely perpetuate the exposure to humans and animals over great distances. Already, the river water along the shore of the facility has been tested and shown to have contaminants at levels greater than 1,500 times the drinking water standard. This poses a major threat to the health of the people and animals in contact with the river. This means that effective and thorough clean-up is necessary in order to prevent even more contamination in the future.
Though there is much contention surrounding Hanford, everyone can agree that it needs to be cleaned up; the disagreement is as to how that should be done. Hanford was built behind curtains of secrecy and justified with a vehement sense of patriotism. These qualities have made it extremely difficult to enact changes in clean-up policy and standards of health and safety as Whistleblowers are harassed and treated vilely; and the “good ol’ boy’s” club makes it virtually impossible to speak out against the ‘way things are’ at Hanford. The political willpower of the 1940’s that built Hanford, and constructed nuclear weapons, stands in great contrast to the current apathy and lack of collaboration on the part of the federal and state government and the stake holders there. Many organizations are working hard toward a collaborative clean-up effort with federal and state programs, and give voices to those that are affected by Hanford.
If you would like to learn more about Hanford and the clean-up effort please explore some of the resources below.
Hanford Challenge: A non-profit organization working on a collaborative clean-up of Hanford
The United States Department of Ecology: One of the Tri-Party stake holders
Physicians for Social Responsibility: A non-profit organization working on environmental and social concerns related to Hanford
Heart of America Northwest: A citizen’s group that works in pursuit of Hanford clean-up