The United States’ atomic weapon production began during World War II, and most are aware of the devastation in Japan when America dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his book “Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America,” author Joshua Frank describes the nuclear devastation in Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium used in the United States’ nuclear arsenal was produced. Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have recovered, but Hanford remains the most polluted place on the planet.
Three nuclear reactors were built at Hanford during World War II. Afterward, as part of the Cold War, nine additional nuclear reactors were constructed, as well as two more weapons facilities. “From 1956 to 1965, Hanford operated at peak capacity, producing sixty-three short tons of plutonium that fueled virtually all of the United States nuclear arsenal.” As Frank makes clear, the production of plutonium comes with a huge amount of nuclear waste. To temporarily store this waste, 177 underground storage tanks were constructed at Hanford. Most of these tanks are within a few miles of the Columbia River.
By 1987, when Hanford’s last nuclear reactor was shut down, the United States had over 21,000 nuclear warheads. “Nuclear weapons made up almost 30 percent of all military spending from 1940 to 1996, $5.5 trillion of an $18.7 trillion total.” But our country did very little to prepare for the aftermath of nuclear production. Investments were not made to determine how to safely dispose of nuclear waste. As a result, Hanford has become a 586-square-mile nuclear disaster zone, filled with radioactive chemical sewage. Cleaning up Hanford has become the most expensive environmental cleanup project in global history.
The magnitude of nuclear waste at Hanford is staggering and includes more than 525 million gallons of tank waste and 25 million cubic feet of toxic, buried solid waste. There have been a multitude of leaks and accidents, many of which have been kept secret. Frank provides example after example, such as the nearly 130 million gallons of waste discharged into the soil between 1946 and 1958. Much of this waste went untreated and polluted local aquifers. Stress and corrosion are causing storage tanks to leak, with new cracks happening all the time. Frank describes Hanford as a “Chernobyl-like disaster-in-waiting.”
Nuclear waste remains toxic for thousands of years but effective disposal methods have yet to be developed. Frank explains that the best available disposal option is turning Hanford’s radioactive liquids into glass. To accomplish this, the construction of a Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) began at Hanford in 2002, with a scheduled completion date by 2011, with the conversion of millions of gallons of radioactive sediment into glass rods scheduled to be completed by 2028. But this project has been poorly managed, pushing out the fully operational date to 2036, and the date for converting the waste to glass to 2048. The current cost estimate is $41 billion, and this number keeps rising.
The WTP is just one of many examples of the extraordinary mismanagement and continuous overcharging by contractors at Hanford, especially with the prime contractor, Bechtel. Yet the government continues to fail at providing sufficient oversight, resulting in tens of billions of wasted taxpayer dollars. Studies have shown that less than half of Bechtel’s projects have met their original objectives. Bechtel has been fined tens of millions of dollars for overcharging, but these fines are far less than the profits Bechtel makes from alleged “poor performance.” In 2016, the Department of Energy (DOE) estimated the full cost to clean up Hanford at $110 billion. The DOE’s current estimate has now increased to at least $316 billion, up to $662 billion.
Frank tells the stories of several employees who have fallen gravely ill from working at Hanford. Safety standards have been extremely lax, especially given the magnitude of the risks, which are downplayed by officials. Frank writes how officials often lied about the findings from their own safety studies. Employee ailments include cancer, brain damage and scarred lungs. Cancer rates in communities surrounding nuclear operations are far higher than normal.
There have been multiple whistleblowers at Hanford, and Frank describes how they were attacked for trying to expose Hanford’s safety hazards. Whistleblowers tended to be long-term, dedicated employees, including top engineers and scientists, yet they consistently faced retaliation from Hanford’s contractors. Frank writes of the extraordinary courage these whistleblowers exhibited by exposing horrific safety violations as contractors put profits above basic safety measures.
Frank also tells the story of the efforts of Indigenous people to stop the polluting of the lands. Throughout American history, Native Americans were seen as expendable. Chronic diseases related to exposure to nuclear materials have been rampant in nearby tribes. Led by Russell Jim, a member of the Yakima Nation, Native Americans have achieved some success in lobbying against Hanford.
To combat climate change, many are now proposing the world turn back to “carbon-free” nuclear energy. Frank writes that returning to nuclear energy is like “destroying the planet to save the planet.” When considering the full life cycle impact of nuclear energy, including the damage caused through mining nuclear materials, the carbon released through the manufacture and operation of nuclear energy facilities and the difficulties with the disposal of nuclear waste, Frank argues that nuclear energy is a terrible option. Frank acknowledges that full life-cycle assessments of solar and wind energy show these “green energy solutions” also come with much harm, but he believes the risks from nuclear are far higher. The current Russian attacks on Ukraine’s nuclear plants are just another example.
So where does cleaning up Hanford stand today? In 2020, the DOE proposed that up to 80 percent of the waste in Hanford’s leaking tanks should be reclassified as “low level,” so that nuclear waste could be turned into a grout-like substance instead of into glass rods. This is a step backward. Frank provides evidence and examples as to how this approach has been a failure at securing nuclear waste.
Frank closes by providing his own recommendations. First is a complete system overhaul at Hanford and the removal of Bechtel as lead contractor. Hanford needs more government and corporate accountability, as well as more public oversight. That’s the key: The public must be made aware just how dire the situation really is. Frank states that “it’s up to us, the public” to make sure Hanford is cleaned up in an effective, transparent and equitable way.
If this ignorance continues, Hanford will remain a nuclear wasteland and an extreme risk to the Pacific Northwest.
Read more of the Dec. 7-13, 2022 issue.