• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The World's Largest Environmental Cleanup has Problems

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Peter Eisler, in front of Hanford's original B Reactor, which produced plutonium for U.S. atomic bombs, including the one dropped on Nagasaki during WWII. (Courtesy Peter Eisler)

The Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state is the largest, most complex and most expensive environmental cleanup effort in the world. USA Today’s investigative reporter, Peter Eisler, tells host Bruce Gellerman, the project is over-due, over-budget and still quite dangerous.


GELLERMAN: The atomic age began July 16, 1945.


GELLERMAN: The first nuclear device that was detonated was nicknamed “The Gadget.”

The first atomic bomb test, known as, Trinity.

[AUDIO CLIP: The sound recorded…..miles away…]

GELLERMAN: Over the next half century the United States produced 60 thousand nuclear weapons. At the heart of each device: plutonium - difficult to make - even harder to clean up. Most of the nation’s supply of plutonium was produced in reactors in south central Washington state, at a restricted site known as Hanford - a 580 square mile complex along the Columbia River.

The production of plutonium at Hanford ended in 1989, and the massive task of cleaning up decades of radioactive pollution began.


GELLERMAN: This upbeat, but accurate video was produced by the Department of
Energy - which is in charge of the Hanford clean up.

[HANFORD VIDEO: The sheer magnitude of the impact on the environment is staggering, resulting in nearly incomprehensible numbers. Numbers like: 270 billion gallons of contaminated ground water and 53 million gallons of waste in 177 storage underground tanks. This waste is the legacy of more than 5 decades of plutonium production making it easy to see how Hanford became the largest, most complex, environmental clean-up effort in the world.]

GELLERMAN: And costly—over the years the cost to clean up Hanford has tripled to more than 12 billion dollars. It was supposed to be completed last year - but that didn’t happen, and some doubt that the project to deal with the deadly plutonium ever will be successfully finished.

Peter Eisler is an investigative reporter with USA Today. In his recent story: “Cleaning Up A Cold War Mess,” Eisler details the daunting technical challenges that are boosting costs and slowing progress at the Hanford weapons site.

EISLER: The government went in the early 1940s and secretly bought up all this property that they needed. And they did it in an out-of-the-way place, somewhere with a water supply and somewhere no one would notice a development of a massive top secret manufacturing operation. On one end of it, they have the reactors where they produced plutonium for the nuclear weapons production facility, and then over toward the other side of the site, they have this enormous production process to clean up all of the waste that is produced from that.

The waste is confined to an area where they have what they call tank farms, about 177 underground tanks, and there’s been a good deal of leakage in and around those tanks - about a million gallons of waste has escaped.

GELLERMAN: And these tanks contain something like 53, 55 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste?

EISLER: The latest estimate is 56 million gallons of high-level waste, yeah.

GELLERMAN: What happened to the stuff that leaked?

EISLER: Ah, well, it’s, you know, there is an environmental cleanup going on there - it’s in the ground, some of it is in the groundwater. The fear is that waste could migrate to the Columbia River, which is nearby, which borders one side of the site, and contaminate the aquifer there. And that provides drinking water to millions of the people stretching all the way down to Portland, Oregon.

GELLERMAN: Now, the plan is to take the liquid waste in these undergroung tanks, and pump it into a new facility, I guess what they call the pre-treatment facility - a vast, vast, vast building.

EISLER: Right, the pre-treatment facility is one of four giant buildings at this new treatment plant that they’re building. The treatment plant is actually a 65-acre complex, and there are these four buildings and the first building that the waste goes into is the pre-treatment building and that is the most complicated part of the operation and the part where they’re running into the most problems.

GELLERMAN: Your article in USA Today has video that accompanies it, and I want to play a clip from that. You interviewed a woman named Donna Busche?

EISLER: Yes, Donna is the site safety manger for the prime sub-contractor at the site, so she is in charge of making sure that all of the systems that are installed at the site meet the safety requirements that have been set.

[VIDEO CLIP: If controls are not properly installed in the design… hydrogen can detonate or explode in a pipe or in a vessel and release large quantities of radioactive material…]

GELLERMAN: That’s pretty dramatic.

EISLER: Well, that’s one of the big concerns that they’re facing here. When you’re handling this kind of material, you really have to plan for the worst-case scenario and be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and a hydrogen gas build-up is an inherent problem when you’re treating this waste, because the radioactive material reacts with water and splits the hydrogen and oxygen molecules and it creates hydrogen gas that bubbles up and it can get trapped in pipes, and it can get trapped in these big vessels that they use to control the waste. And if too much hydrogen gets trapped in those spaces, then you could have a combustible situation, and that would be a very big problem.

GELLERMAN: So, the plan is to take this waste and to turn it into glass right? These huge glass rods.

EISLER: Yes, ultimately, this is a process called vitrification and it has been done before on a much, much smaller scale with much less complex waste. And what they do is essentially blend the waste with glass-forming particles, in a molten mixture, and it makes a liquid glass which they pour into these giant steel canisters and the glass cools and solidifies in these canisters. And what you end up after 30 years of this processing is tens of thousands of these steel canisters with glass rods in them.

GELLERMAN: So, this waste treatment and immobilization plant - they’re designing it as they’re building it?

EISLER: Yes, it’s what they call a design-build project. And that has a lot of people very concerned. It is one of the biggest technical challenges that they’re facing.

GELLERMAN: In your video, you have one of the senior engineers from the Department of Energy, Don Alexander, and he is very skeptical of this plan.

[VIDEO CLIP: ALEXANDER: So, on the one hand while the issues are being discussed here on the side, the project is going full steam ahead and it’s getting us deeper and deeper in trouble.]

GELLERMAN: That’s from a Department of Energy scientist!

EISLER: Their concern is that there is such a push to finish this project, there’s a lot of time pressure to get it done, that they’re moving ahead with these designs without validating them, without testing them sufficiently to be sure that they will work.

The nuclear waste treatment facility should be operational by 2019. (Bechtel National.)

Once the plant begins operating, this material is so radioactive that much of the plant is sealed off. The moment they begin processing it, they essentially weld the doors shut, and it’s got to run for at least 30 years to do its job. So if there is a problem, a significant problem in one of these areas, it’s very difficult, if not impossible to go in and fix it. So, that leaves you with a plant that doesn’t work.

GELLERMAN: I understand they call these areas Black Cells.

EISLER: Yup, they’re Black Cells, and to sort of imagine the technical challenge - imagine building a car where you welded the hood shut and expected that car to run for 100,000 miles and could never get in and touch the engine - that’s essentially what you’re talking about with Black Cells.

GELLERMAN: What happens if you have one of these sealed areas, these Black Cells, and it doesn’t work as advertised, something does go wrong. What happens?

EISLER: Well, that’s the 12 billion dollar question. You know, they have some robotic options for trying to go in and deal with certain kinds of problems. But a major problem would cause them to have to go in and abandon the process in that area.

GELLERMAN: And then what happens to the waste?

EISLER: Well, then the waste is still there. And that’s the scenario that nobody wants to contemplate is investing all of this money and all of this effort and all of this time and having it not be able to complete its job. And if you’re still left will all of this liquid waste in these very old deteriorating underground tanks, then you’re right back to where we are now with the threat of an environmental disaster.

GELLERMAN: What does Bechtel National say - they’re the primary contractor.

EISLER: They are and they say that they will not put cost and schedule ahead of safety and operational success.

GELLERMAN: I guess that’s what the Department of Energy is saying. You also interviewed Dale Knutson. He’s the project director for the Department of Energy.

USA Today’s Cleaning up a Cold War Mess:

[VIDEO CLIP: As we learn things, we’ll adjust.As the technical issues provide new surprises to us, we’ll adjust. And as we bring the design to completion, we’ll ensure that the design has been validated against the safety criteria, and that we never allow the plant to be operated in a mode that doesn’t satisfy the safety requirement that we began with at our baseline.]

EISLER: That is certainly the Energy Department’s position, and the question now is - ok, if you’re going to go out and do more testing, and you’ve already built some of this stuff, are you really going to be willing to go back in and tear it out and redo it if the tests prove not to be successful.

GELLERMAN: So this thing is supposed to be up and running in, what, 2019 now, right?

EISLER: That is the legal deadline for getting what they call a hot start; for getting it up and running, yes.

Eight of the 177 radioactive waste holding tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Site. (Photo: Department of Energy, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

GELERMAN: So, let’s say it does go online in 2019, and they have this vitrified plutonium - the glass enclosed in these steel coffins - what happens then? What do they do with all of those coffins?

EISLER: Well, that’s another unanswered question. Originally they had planned to put those coffins at Yucca Mountain, where they were building a repository for nuclear waste, also from all of the commercial nuclear power plants around the country. Now that that project is not moving forward, there is no immediate plan for what to do with these tens of thousands of finished cylinders.

Mind you these cylinders remain enormously radioactive, in some cases, depending on which kind of waste has been vitrified in the glass, to the point where, you know, a human being couldn’t even go near them. So, they’re going to have to build an onsite storage facility to hold these things, until a permanent repository is built.

The Hanford Story: Overview

GELLERMAN: Peter Eisler is an investigative reporter with USA Today. A link to his story: “Cleaning Up A Cold War Mess” – and a lot more – can be found on our web site LOE dot ORG.



USA Today story: "Cleaning up a Cold War Mess"

Trinity test

The Department of Energy’s Hanford site


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth