Radioactive medical waste, glow-in-the-dark exit signs from airplanes and lab waste have to go somewhere when they're no longer needed.
Much of that radioactive garbage is trucked through Washington, Oregon and Idaho to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. There, a little-known commercial waste landfill is getting some attention from Hanford watchdogs.
Richland correspondent Anna King visited the massive sandy trench where the waste is dumped.
A Geiger counter’s slow click starts to turn into a steady buzz as a technician waves the machine’s wand near steel containers sitting on a semi-truck trailer. It’s destined for a 100-acre dump on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland. So what’s in the containers?
Michael Ault: "Well from power plants we will get protective clothing, coveralls, booties, gloves, some tools."
This is Michael Ault, the facility manager. He’s worked here for 18 years, after retiring from the Navy.
Michael Ault: "We also receive waste products from the Areva plant in Richland as part of their process of fabrication of uranium."
A delivery of waste shows up here about every two weeks. A lot of the garbage is commercial stuff used in daily life. Basically, anything from the West Coast and Northern Rockies that’s radioactive and needs to be thrown away.
The only stuff that doesn’t come here is weapons production waste and spent nuclear fuel from reactors. The site is leased by Washington State from the federal government. A publicly traded company called US Ecology runs the operation.
After the workers finish checking in the load, we follow the shipment down to the trenches where the stuff is buried.
A large crane off-loads the containers of waste from the truck. Ault says this is the best place and way to dispose of this radioactive garbage. The trenches look like football fields dug down into the earth about 45-feet.
Michael Ault: "This is a safe secure way of disposing of it. So I have no problems talking to anybody about my job."
Hey, but what about Initiative 297? Didn’t Washington vote to stop new radioactive waste shipments from coming to Hanford? I-297 excluded shipments to this particular dump, because it’s part of a national compact.
Gerry Pollet is director of Heart of America Northwest, the Hanford watchdog group that wrote the ballot measure. He says the legislation did ask for liners to be put in the trenches.
Gerry Pollet: "The commercial low level waste dump at Hanford is a disgrace to the state of Washington. It is a massive unlined set of ditches that are leaking contamination that threatens the Columbia River. And it’s an embarrassment that we are dumping radioactive waste, some of it extremely radioactive, in unlined ditches."
Washington State has begun a study to check whether the trenches are leaking into the ground water or toward the Columbia River.
Results from soil and water tests are expected to be released in late summer. Michael Ault, US Ecology’s facility manager, says nowadays the nuclear industry is figuring out how to reduce its waste. But Ault says there still is radioactive garbage that needs a home.
Michael Ault: "Radioactive material is in so many different parts of everyday life that there’s going to be waste. The thing that bothers me most about it are people who say, ‘We don’t want that, we don’t want that!’ Well it’s here. OK. If you don’t like this solution, give me a better one. As of today and today’s technology this is the best solution for that type of material."
This landfill is licensed to operate by the state until 2056. Some of the material dumped here has a half life of 10,000 years. So this dump and its contents will be around for a long while.