The Hanford nuclear reservation in south central Washington state holds 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. The facility produced plutonium for U.S. atomic bombs in WWII, and it kept producing for the country’s nuclear weapons through the late 1980s. The plan to contain that waste by turning it into glass logs, or vitrification, has been plagued with problems for decades. Some of the waste contained in underground tanks is leaking into the Columbia River. Workers have sued over exposure to toxic waste, and the current federal funding for cleanup is less than federal and state lawmakers say is needed. Now, an internal Department of Energy document says that the vitrification process would create a toxic vapor. The next public hearing on the nuclear plant will be held Tuesday, May 10, and public comments are being accepted through June 4. We’re joined by freelance reporter John Stang who’s been covering Hanford for three decades and obtained the internal DOE document.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south central Washington state is known as one of the most radioactively contaminated sites in the western hemisphere. Plutonium for nuclear weapons was made there for about 40 years. Now, tanks at Hanford hold 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Decades ago, the US Department of Energy came up with a plan to contain that waste by turning it into glass logs. But that plan is way behind schedule and way over budget.
Freelance reporter John Stang has been covering Hanford for more than 30 years. He wrote in Crosscut recently about a toxic vapor that could be released as part of this cleanup, and he joins us with the latest details. John Stang, welcome.
John Stang: Thank you for having me.
Miller: I noted that amount of radioactive waste, a number I can’t really fathom, 56 million gallons of this waste. How is it being stored right now?
Stang: It is stored in 177 huge underground tanks that are located in the central part of the site.
Miller: One big fear is that this waste could leach out into the ground, the groundwater, potentially into the Columbia River. How much is that happening?
Stang: At least one million gallons has leaked out into the ground. It takes a while for it to seep down to the ground water, the aquifer, which is 100-200ft beneath the surface, and then it flows toward the Columbia River which is about seven miles away. Some of it’s already reached the Columbia River.
Miller: What options has the Department of Energy, which oversees this site, considered in terms of some version of permanent disposal of this radioactive sludge?
Stang: The Feds have looked at two approaches since the early 1990s. One is this glassification process, technically it’s called vitrification. The other is to mix it with a cement-like substance called grout. Both approaches mix the radioactive material with either the cement or the glass, and then it would be shipped off, theoretically to Nevada. But the Nevada storage site has been on permanent hold for about 10 years. The Feds opted to go with glassification in about the mid 1990s, and that’s the approach they have taken so far for about the last 25+ years.
Miller: It’s not uncommon for big public works projects to be delayed and over budget, but this cleanup effort, that they officially called vitrification, you call glassification, because it’s a word, glass, that we use more often in daily life, it really does seem like this is in a class by itself. In terms of the delays, the budget has quadrupled from initial plans, and right now, it’s not slated to start until after it was originally planned to have been completed. What have the challenges been?
Stang: One of the challenges is the fact that this has never been done before on this scale, probably in the world. It’s been done on a smaller scale, a very small scale, but one of the problems with Hanford’s waste is that there’s roughly 100-125 different chemicals. And you’ve got to be able to deal with most of all those chemicals. And so there are scientific problems. There are engineering problems, because this waste is so radioactive, you have to deal with it by remote control, which means if something goes wrong, you just can’t send some people in there to fix it, you’ve got to fix it by remote control. And part of it’s probably the complexity of the project, and some of its politics and bureaucracy.
Miller: So let’s turn to the latest questions about safety, which actually aren’t about radioactivity per se, but about another hazardous chemical. This came because the environmental watchdog group Hanford Challenge got ahold of a report from the Department of Energy from last year that is now public. Can you explain what they found in that report, and why it’s of concern?
Stang: Yes, the report is an internal document, dated about mid-2021, and it looks at a substance called acetonitrile, which if it catches on fire, emits hydrogen cyanide gas. And the internal memo said that they looked at the hazards of acetonitrile in its liquid form, but it did not analyze the potential problems in a vapor form And that’s the crux of the report.
Miller: In other words, what the feds found is that in the safety plans, they accounted for the possibility there might be some kind of spill of the liquid, but they hadn’t reckoned with what would happen if there were some kind of vapor leak of this very dangerous gas?
Stang: That is correct, as of mid 2021. The Department of Energy tells me they have fixed the problem, but so far they haven’t been willing to discuss the details of how they fixed the problem. They just say “we fixed it, no problem,” but won’t elaborate. I am going to be talking with some DOE officials about this a little later today, after this story airs.
Miller: You wrote that officials from Washington State who were alerted by that environmental watchdog group Hanford Challenge just before the group made this more widely public, they told state officials about this report, and then officials from the state asked Federal Department of Energy officials questions about it. Did the Department of Energy give Washington officials any more clarity?
Stang: They’ve discussed it a little bit since the story ran. I do not know the extent of how much clarification came from those discussions.
Miller: You’ve been covering the Hanford Nuclear Reservation for more than three decades. When you get a statement without really any specifics from the Department of Energy at this point saying, “don’t worry, we’ve handled it,” what goes through your mind?
Stang: I have probably the same approach as some of the other Hamford watchers who I’ve been involved with the site since the 80s and 90s. We all want the glassification plant to work, and are cautiously optimistic it will eventually work. But also, the Department of Energy and Hanford officials have had a track record of ignoring or glossing over problems publicly, and then it pops up as a real problem several years down the road.
I’ll give you two examples. Department of Energy managers for the glassification project, both said that the original estimate of $4 billion dollars was no ways near enough to do the project. One was fired, and the other was exiled to a minor post in Tennessee.
The second happened in 2010, when upper middle managers’ question raised the possibility of hydrogen explosions occurring within the plant, and they said “this is a big problem.” But what happened was that those concerns were ignored. Bechtel, the main contractor, received a big bonus in 2010 for meeting its targets for that year. The protesting middle managers were retaliated against. And then in 2015, the Department of Energy said we’ve got to delay this project more, for the same reasons that we ignored in 2010, and for which we retaliated against some mid managers.
So, Hanford has lost some trust, and as far as I’m concerned, it still needs to re-earn some trust in its dealings with the public.
Miller: You mentioned earlier that in addition to the environmental and cleanup challenges that Hanford faces, there are also political challenges. What do you mean?
Stang: Well, Hanford is in the middle of nowhere, and that was on purpose, because it was created in the Manhattan Project, and they wanted their plutonium production to be in the middle of nowhere for various World War Two security reasons. And also if a reactor blew up, they didn’t want it near a city. And I’m not kidding on that one. So, Hanford is sort of an out of sight out of mind problem for Washington DC, even for Seattle at times It’s 200 miles from the nearest metropolitan area. It is 3,000 miles from Washington D. C. It is a very unglamorous problem that soaks up billions and billions of dollars. It’s sort of meaningless to most of Congress. And so they just see this as this hard to understand thing in the middle of nowhere that sucks up tons of dollars. And so therefore, it’s a very low priority in the national budget picture.
Miller: Everything you’ve just mentioned about it being away from major population centers, although, Tri-Cities are not far away-
Stang: Oh yeah, my Tri-Citian friends are probably gnashing their teeth right now.
Miller: But it does make me wonder, given that you’ve been covering Hanford for about 30 years now, I’m curious how the level of media attention it gets now compares to when you first started?
Stang: It received loads of media attention when I first started. I was actively competing against the Spokane paper, the Portland paper, the Seattle paper. We were all running all over the place trying to scoop each other, and it was very aggressive coverage. In the last 15 years, newspapers have been in economic trouble, and have dramatically cut their news staffs. So as far as I know, there’s a grand total of three reporters who even cover Hanford now, compared to about six or eight 20 years ago. One is from the Seattle Times, one is me, and one is Anette Cary at the Tri-City Herald. And to give you an idea of how newsrooms are slashed, when I left the Herald in 2004, it had 45 staff members. Now it has seven or eight. So everyone’s stretched very thin, and again, Hanford drops down in news gathering priorities.
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