Energy | Water | Ecotrope

Digging their own grave at Hanford

Ecotrope | July 30, 2010 4:39 a.m. | Updated: March 8, 2013 10:18 a.m.

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Excavators bury low-level radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation in south central Washington. Little do they know, they will later be buried at the site themselves.

Excavators bury low-level radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation in south central Washington. Little do they know, they will later be buried at the site themselves.

At the Hanford nuclear reservation, nearly $2 billion in stimulus money is going toward cleaning up toxic remnants of the nation’s nuclear weapons program in south central Washington.

As I learned in a public tour of the site recently, a cruel irony of the operation is this: In cleaning up radioactive rubble, the U.S. Department of Energy is making more contaminated waste that will need to be quarantined. Every tool that touches radioactive material – every truck that takes it to Hanford’s on-site landfill – is added to the pile of toxic trash.

While the truckloads of money have sent the cleanup into overdrive (there are now 12,000 people working on the titanic effort) many of the same essential problems remain. One, above all: Where will they keep the high-level radioactive waste? The Yucca Mountain disposal site idea is officially off the table.

And as $2 million in contaminated materials destined for Yucca Mountain are now being redirected to Hanford, central Washington is still the de facto storage site for two-thirds of the country’s nuclear weapons waste.

Making plutonium for nuclear weapons was an extremely inefficient process that left loads of contaminated water and unusable, radioactive uranium to be dealt with later. The U.S. Department of Energy has been in various stages of “later” since the last of its nine reactors at Hanford was decommissioned in 1987. Leaking storage tanks for the spent water have contaminated soil and groundwater at the site, and the tanks themselves are caked with hazardous gunk Hanford site tour guides liken to the last scraps of peanut butter in the jar. In other words, tough to remove.

The DOE is using stimulus money to scour the water tank walls, pump and clean polluted groundwater and turn the resulting high-level radioactive waste into glass without knowing where the glass will be stored long-term. The agency is also digging out contaminated soil at Hanford, demolishing decommissioned structures and delivering lower-level waste to a landfill on-site.

But in between the topsoil and the groundwater are several hundred feet of contaminated turf without a cleanup plan.

“It’s kind of like we’re eating a sandwich from the outside,” said DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree. DOE doesn’t yet know how it will decontaminate the middle of that sandwich to prevent rainfall from becoming the contaminated groundwater of the future.

Dump trucks are moving contaminated material faster than ever before: 600 25-ton truckloads a day up from 200 a day before the stimulus money kicked in.

Eventually, the trucks and excavators being used to bury the low-level waste will be considered hazardous waste themselves and will have to be buried at the same site they helped to create. They are, somewhat literally, digging their own grave.

One of my favorite unanswered questions of the tour came after we left the grave site: How will they bury the last contaminated backhoe?

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