Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The wages of death

As misbegotten as some of the U.S. government's software projects have proven, they are dwarfed in complexity, costs and hazards by projects to clean up nuclear weapons plants built during and shortly after World War II. Those and similar plants built in Britain, France, China and the former Soviet Union are probably the worst man-made environmental hazards ever. What would have been difficult challenges under the best of circumstances became scandals, as one government report put it, through management that "has not established an institutional culture that honors protection of environment, safety and health." [1 p. 13]

Environmental contamination at U.S. nuclear weapons plants began to be reported by national news media in the 1970s. [2] [3] By the late 1980s, plants and their surroundings had become horribly contaminated by radioactive substances and by processing chemicals that the plants used. Careless workers and managers spread dangerous substances through workplaces, let them blow around in the wind and dumped what they called "waste" into ponds, wells, streams, earth trenches and containers lightly built for what they held. In a spirit that survived long after its origins in the era of World War II, production commonly took priority over everything else. [4] Following news and reports in the 1970s and 1980s exposing hazards of the plants and then collapse of the former Soviet Union, the federal government wound down most work at plants that were still active.

In 1988 Congress authorized a Defense Nuclear Safety Board to oversee plant cleanup. In 1989, retired Adm. James Watkins, then Secretary of Energy, established in his department an Office of Environmental Restoration and Waste Management, now known as the Office of Environmental Management. The same year, on behalf of the Herbert Bush administration, he announced a program to clean up U.S. nuclear weapons plants. [5] It was then expected to take "30 or more" years. Conditions of plant environments were not then reliably known, and the cost and complexity of such a program were underestimated. Only a year later, the Administration's estimate of $19.5 billion for the first five years had grown by half to $28.6 billion, in 1990 dollars. [6]

Of more than a dozen large plants involved with nuclear weapons, the worst contaminated were:
* Oak Ridge, 1942, in Tennessee, site of uranium enrichment using gaseous diffusion chambers
* Hanford, 1943, in Washington, site of plutonium breeding in reactors and chemical extraction
* INL, 1949, in Idaho, also INEL and INEEL, site of experimental reactor and nuclear materials testing
* Fernald, 1951, in Ohio, site of manufacturing for uranium feedstocks and reactor fuel elements
* Rocky Flats, 1951, in Colorado, site of plutonium alloying and forming, making shapes for weapons
* Savannah River, 1952, in South Carolina, also plutonium breeding in reactors and chemical extraction
These plants have been used for work outside their primary purposes. Oak Ridge was a development site for many World War II nuclear-weapons materials, and a large variety of facilities were built there. Savannah River has also performed radiochemical separations and produced most of the tritium used in weapons.

U.S. nuclear weapons plants represent a blend of technology, business and government. The federal government has usually hired industrial companies to develop and operate the technology-intensive plants:
* Oak Ridge: DuPont 1942-1945, Union Carbide 1948-1984, Lockheed Martin 1984-2000, Battelle 2000-present [7]
* Hanford: DuPont 1943-1946, General Electric 1946-1967, Westinghouse 1987-1996, Fluor 1996-present [8]
* INL: Phillips Petroleum 1949-1966, Idaho Nuclear 1966-1971, Aerojet 1972-1976, Westinghouse 1976-1994, Lockheed Martin 1994-1999, Bechtel 1999-2005, Battelle 2005-present [9]
* Fernald: National Lead 1951-1985, Westinghouse 1985-1992, Fluor 1992-2006 [10]
* Rocky Flats: Dow Chemical 1951-1975, Rockwell 1975-1990, EG&G 1990-1995, Kaiser-Hill 1995-2005 [11] [12]
* Savannah River: DuPont 1952-1989, Westinghouse 1989-2008, SRNS and URS 2008-present [13]
DuPont was prime contractor for the Manhattan Project, developing the nuclear weapons used in World War II. Many of the later companies are special-purpose combinations. URS, for example, coordinates work by Bechtel, CH2M Hill, Babcock & Wilcox and Areva.

By the third edition of the Department of Energy plan in 1991, projected spending on the cleanup had grown to near $7 billion a year, while the plan continued to set a 30-year target for completion. [14] That would have amounted to around $200 billion for the program in 1990 dollars or $350 billion in 2013 dollars. However, at that time Rocky Flats, Savannah River, INL and Oak Ridge continued as active plants, and cleanup was not estimated for them. Over succeeding years, plants were surveyed for inventories of hazardous substances, more plants and facilities were added to the cleanup program, standards of remediation were changed and some new processes for handling hazardous substances were developed.

By 1995, an incomplete inventory of nuclear weapons plant hazards had found:
* over 330 radioactive waste tanks of up to a million gallons
* over 3,700 contaminated sites spread over 3,365 square miles
* over 5,700 plumes of contamination in soil and groundwater
* over 1,000,000 55-gallon drums and boxes of chemical waste
* 77,000,000 gallons of liquid high-level radioactive waste
* 385,000 cubic meters of solid high-level radioactive waste
* 250,000 cubic meters of solid long-lived radioactive waste
* 2,500,000 cubic meters of solid low-level radioactive waste

The 1995 report displaying this inventory complained that the Department of Energy "has received about $23 billion for environmental management since 1989, yet little cleanup has resulted." [15] The department spent most of its efforts through 1995 assembling an inventory of hazards, evaluating standards of remediation, developing processes to treat radioactive waste and planning cleanups of individual sites and facilities. Environmental Management became the largest program in the department's budget.

While there are many major hazards associated with nuclear weapons production, liquid high-level radioactive wastes from plutonium production have been the most troublesome byproducts. They contain cesium and strontium fission products that are very dangerous and difficult to shield. About 92 million gallons accumulated between 1943 and shutdown of the last plutonium separation facility in 1990. As of 2012, according to the Department of Energy, Hanford had near 60 percent of the high-level wastes, Savannah River had near 40 percent and about a percent was at INL. [16] Other accounts offer somewhat different distributions.

The plutonium processing wastes began as acidic solutions. They were neutralized with hydroxides to reduce attacks on steel storage tanks, leading some minerals in the wastes to settle as so-called "sludge" with others remaining in solution. Over time, water was evaporated, causing dissolved minerals to crystallize into a crust of so-called "salt cake." Contents of waste tanks at Savannah River have been measured at around eight percent sludge by volume, with the balance split about evenly between liquid and salt cake. Retrieving waste from tanks became much more difficult because of sludge and salt cake.

Rocky Flats, in Colorado
Of the worst contaminated plants, as of 2013 Rocky Flats was one of only two accepted by the Department of Energy as remediated. However, the extent of remediation achieved by 2005 is disputed by nearby residents, and so far the department has refused to release results of contamination surveys. While plutonium is poisonous and radiotoxic in all forms, pure metal that was processed at Rocky Flats was especially hazardous. It can ignite spontaneously if exposed to air. When a critical mass of fissile plutonium is compressed into a compact shape, it produces a nuclear explosion.

Several releases of plutonium into the environment were reported while Rocky Flats operated, 1952-1992. The plant suffered plutonium fires in 1957 and 1969, releasing oxidized plutonium dust into the air and causing hundreds of millions in damages, in 2013 dollars. The Department of Energy admitted total plutonium releases of 0.6 Curies over the plant's life. However, a state-sponsored study estimated around 20 Curies released by the 1957 fire alone, in a plume contaminating Denver and its northern suburbs. [17 pp. 23-24]

Significant concentrations of plutonium have been found in soils and dust accumulations in the vicinity of the Rocky Flats site after 2005. [18] [19] Heavy rains in the spring of 1995 brought to the surface plutonium that had been trapped underground. [20] A lethal plutonium dose is around 20 milligrams or 0.3 Curies. However, much smaller amounts of plutonium will induce cancers. Ingestion of 10 micrograms or 0.00015 Curies is estimated to double one's lifetime cancer risk. [21] Nevertheless, a study performed by a state agency in the mid-1990s did not find excess cancer incidence in the general population of the Denver area. [22]

During the second Walker Bush administration, the Department of Energy allowed "accelerated" procedures at Rocky Flats, failing to remove buried contamination, and it accepted a rushed and problematic survey of surface contamination, without enough reliability to verify the contamination limits. [19 pp. 99-103] As a result, contractor Kaiser-Hill became eligible for a large bonus, up to $560 million in incentive fees. [19 p. 4]

Fernald, in Ohio
The Fernald plant has been scrubbed and demolished, and in 2006 it was also accepted as remediated by the Department of Energy. However, the facility locations and nearby lands remain heavily contaminated with uranium-processing residues, and unless further remediated they are considered uninhabitable. Environmental pollution began early on, under National Lead management, and continued until the plant was closed in 1989.

Discoveries in a lawsuit showed that the former Atomic Energy Commission was warned about pollution risks in 1951 and that National Lead knew about contaminated groundwater by 1960. At least a million pounds of uranium, radium and thorium migrated from processing facilities and storage areas to soil and groundwater. During the 1980s, management was altering radiation exposure records of workers and concealing knowledge of radioactive contamination that was far above government limits. [23] However, no one has been sent to prison.

The Department of Energy had estimated cleanup at 32 years and $12 billion in 1995 dollars. Over ten thousand rail cars loaded with the most contaminated soil were sent to a disposal site in west Texas. [24] In 2006, the second Walker Bush administration accepted Fernald as remediated after only 13 years and $4.4 billion in 2005 dollars. As with the Rocky Flats cleanup, early project completion made the contractor, Fluor, eligible for a large bonus, up to $288 million in incentive fees. [25]

The rushed remediation project left much of Fernald's contamination at the site. Around 6 million tons of building rubble and soil had been identified as radioactively contaminated, but only about a quarter of that was moved offsite. The rest was heaped into a large landfill adjacent to the former Fernald facilities. [26]

Savannah River, in South Carolina
Parts of Savannah River remain in active use: continuing to extract tritium from irradiated reactor targets to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons, continuing to perform radiochemical separations, building and operating facilities packaging high-level radioactive waste, and constructing a facility to produce reactor fuel from mixtures of uranium and plutonium oxides. Savannah River staff developed the current U.S. process to process and package liquid high-level radioactive waste, a 13-year effort starting in 1983 under DuPont management.

Savannah River had five reactors of one basic design, all moderated by heavy water. That allowed using natural uranium with more stability than the graphite-moderated reactors at Hanford. The Dana plant near Newport, IN, operated from 1952 to 1957 to supply heavy water. Savannah River reactors began operating in 1954 at initial power levels of about 0.4 GW, thermal. They ran with slightly enriched uranium, supplied from Oak Ridge, to increase production. By 1964 they were running at about 2 GW. Like the Hanford reactors, those at Savannah River also used fuel slugs of metallic uranium, supplied by Fernald. It was co-extruded into aluminum cans on-site, an improvement over the Hanford process. The R-reactor, oldest of the five, was shut down in 1964 after the Lyndon Johnson administration ordered cutbacks in nuclear materials. From 1985 to 1988 reactors C, L and P were shut down, leaving only the K-reactor operable. In 1992 that was also permanently closed. [27]

Savannah River has two "canyon" buildings used for plutonium extraction from irradiated nuclear fuel. The F-canyon has been sealed off, in anticipation of decontamination and demolition. The newer H-canyon is still in use for radiochemical separations. During the second Walker Bush administration, the Department of Energy made plans in 2005 and let contracts in 2007 to build a facility producing so-called "MOX" reactor fuel from mixtures of uranium and plutonium oxides. The MOX project aimed to use up plutonium from retired nuclear weapons. H-canyon was to be employed for this project, estimated in 2008 to cost at least $4.3 billion. [28]

The Savannah River waste packaging separates high-level radioactive waste stored in tanks into two main streams. A high-level stream contains most of the fission products with strong radioactivity, to be vitrified in molten glass. A medium-level stream of "salt waste" contains most of the chemical salts from plutonium extraction, mixed with residues of reactor fuel, long-lived transuranic activation products, fission products and decay products, to be immobilized as synthetic "saltstone." [29] [30] As of 2013, there were six saltstone vessels--about 150 ft in diameter and 22 ft high--with other, much larger ones in development. The worst-case radioactivity near those vessels has been estimated at about 1 rem per hour at 100 feet--delivering the maximum annual industrial exposure allowed by the U.S. in a few hours. [31 p. 4]

At the Defense Waste Processing Facility of Savannah River, temperature-resistant glass mixed with dried waste chemicals is melted into type 304L stainless-steel canisters that are closed with welded but unannealed plugs. [31] Once loaded, canisters are dangerous radiation sources. Radiation from a canister can exceed 5,000 rems per hour at the surface. [32 p. 3] A few minutes next to one could deliver a lethal radiation dose. Wet and salty environments corrode type 304L stainless steel. [33] Salty water can also leach waste from glass. While the Savannah River canisters are expected to be reliable in protected settings, they would not be likely to withstand long-term exposure to unprotected, underground settings without leaking. Savannah River has no current plans to ship canisters offsite or to store them in unprotected settings. [29 p. 18]

As of 2012, completion of processing for the high-level waste at Savannah River was projected for 2028. [34 p. 229] However, scrubbing out "heels" from storage tanks and processing that waste is expected to take a few more years. [29 pp. 3, 17, 52] Those efforts may be delayed by lack of funding to build more glass-waste storage. Current buildings have room for only about 60 percent of the high-level waste stream. [29 p. 18] Completing a salt-waste processor has already been delayed four years, from 2014 to 2018, by lack of funding. Stability of saltstone over thousands to millions of years remains a critical, unresolved issue at Savannah River.

The capacities of the 51 Savanna River high-level waste storage tanks range from 750,000 to 1,300,000 gallons. Only the eight type IV tanks built in the 1950s are similar to most Hanford tanks--a single-wall steel liner butted against concrete sides. Other single-wall tanks built in the 1950s have catch pans outside the steel liners. The 27 double-wall tanks built in the 1960s and 1970s have leak detection systems and satisfy current EPA requirements for underground storage of hazardous substances.

At least 12 of the 51 giant underground tanks are known to have leaked, all lacking double-wall construction, risking exposure of soil and groundwater to high-level waste. [35] The Savannah River managers have proven proficient at concealing the total amount of high-level radioactivity leaks. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared the plant a Superfund site and documented several underground plumes of waste. EPA does not yet appear to have investigated potential plumes from high-level waste tanks. [36] Because the site remains largely exempted from regulation under the Atomic Energy Acts of 1946 and 1954, Public Laws 79–585 and 83-703 as amended, EPA currently has mostly powers of persuasion.

Tanks at Savannah River began to be emptied in the 1990s, as the Defense Waste Processing Facility started to process high-level radioactive waste that had been stored in them. By 1997, two of the type IV tanks were eligible for disposal. Rather than scrub and dismantle the tanks, site manager Westinghouse left up to a few thousand gallons of residuals in each tank and dumped in about 600 truckloads of low-strength concrete--a so-called "reducing grout" typically composed of sand, fly ash, Portland cement and sodium sulfide or another chemical agent, plus additives. Its compressive strength as cured can be as low as 500 psi, around 10 to 15 percent the strength of construction-grade concrete. [37]

That cavalier action provoked strong controversy. Legal issues were raised over improper disposal of high-level radioactive waste. In the contamination zone, where concrete meets residual waste, composition is uncontrolled, and physical properties are uncertain. Westinghouse had no reliable knowledge of long-term durability for the contamination zone, which contains most of the radioactivity left in tanks. [38 pp. 56, 174ff] It had only informal, short-term studies performed by a Savannah River staffer and an Oak Ridge staffer. [35 p. 1] Since 2004, Savannah River has been allowed to reclassify residual high-level waste as low-level, through an amendment to the Defense Reauthorization Act that year inserted by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R, SC)--a favored ally of the state's nuclear industry. [39] [40]

Savannah River management wrote up detailed justifications for their approach well after the fact. [38] [41] These say the facility will be actively maintained for 100 years after tanks are filled with concrete. [41 p. 198] Since some of the radioactive components persist at significant activities for up to a million years and the area has already experienced human habitation for over ten thousand years, that is an irresponsible approach. Over tens to hundreds of years, steel. concrete and other buried materials corrode and degrade to rubble and powders. Pouring concrete over residual waste leaves the contamination zone where they meet at risk of concrete rot, in which a zone of poorly consolidated, low-strength concrete propagates.

There is no question whether radioactive substances will escape into the environment, but only how soon, how much and how hazardous? Savannah River documents describe models to estimate long-term consequences, but they do not support the efforts with realistic measurements or with time-proven data. For example, a trivial number of samples have been collected and measured from residuals left in so-called "empty" tanks. [41 pp. 218-219]

For the MOX project, the second Walker Bush administration planned to adapt a process that had been developed by the French company Areva to recover and reuse plutonium from spent fuel at commercial nuclear power-plants. However, plutonium in nuclear weapons is usually alloyed with gallium. An evaluation in 2004 by an Areva subsidiary had indicated that gallium would embrittle the cladding of MOX reactor fuel rods and shorten their useful lives, so new process development was undertaken to remove gallium. [42] The extra efforts and costs turned out to have been wasted. By 2010, tests reported by Oak Ridge and Areva showed that MOX fuel rods made from weapons plutonium alloyed with gallium performed as well as those made with plutonium recovered from commercial spent fuel. [43]

By then, Savannah River was committed to the costly modified process. As of 2013, $3.7 billion has been spent on the MOX project, and projections of total costs have reached $7.7 billion, with further increases likely. Covert origins of the MOX project were revealed in partisan politics rather than in economics or policy, again involving Sen. Graham. The Obama administration indicated it may cashier the project. [44] [45] Without the MOX project, there would be little justification to operate the H-canyon, alarming Savannah River contractors who are charging around $250 million a year to maintain the facility.

If the MOX project were abandoned and the H-canyon sealed, the only high-priority, continuing activities at Savannah River would be tritium extraction and waste packaging. It might then be feasible to shrink the plant boundaries around the acres used by the tritium facility plus the Defense Waste Processing Facility, releasing much of the current 310 square miles as a remediation site--no longer subject to the Atomic Energy Acts. That would allow EPA and South Carolina agencies to oversee many of the remaining steps needed to clean up the badly contaminated site. Otherwise, the Rocky Flats and the Fernald experiences, during the second Walker Bush administration, warn of what can happen: a rush to the exit by an industrial contractor in order to collect a bonus from a business-friendly federal Administration, leaving behind problems.

Hanford, in Washington
Hanford has long been a problem-child of the nuclear-weapons industry: the most prolific producer and also the least responsive to environmental concerns. Its production facilities have been closed and under cleanup since 1990. [46] Nearly a quarter century of cleanup so far leaves a long way to go. With about 60 percent of the U.S inventory of liquid, high-level radioactive waste, starting treatment efforts at least 23 years behind Savannah River, Hanford's cleanup could last nearly a century--and possibly far longer.

Plutonium-239 proved more effective for weapons than uranium-235 and other fissile isotopes. The Cold War that began in the 1940s brought great pressure on Hanford as the sole producer of plutonium--at first--and after that the most productive until the mid-1960s. The B-reactor, Hanford's first, began at 0.25 GW thermal in 1944, but by 1961 it was operating at 2.1 GW. The last three reactors--KE, KW and N--operated at about 4 GW, thermal, comparable to a current nuclear power-plant, and the N-reactor produced commercial electric power from 1966 to 1986. Tritium production for thermonuclear weapons began in 1949. The first full-scale thermonuclear weapon test in the South Pacific occurred in 1952. [8] Hanford was the sole producer of tritium until Savannah River started production in 1955.

Hanford's facilities and operations are more complicated than the other nuclear weapons plants, because Hanford was a site of much process development as well as high-volume production. Hanford developed nine reactors for plutonium production, of varied design--versus five at Savannah River, of similar design. Hanford built five plutonium-processing canyon facilities, using three different processes--versus two at Savannah River, both using PUREX. Hanford also houses many initiatives that faltered: construction of early plutonium devices, three plutonium extraction processes that operated a few months to a few years, production of large strontium-90 and cesium-137 capsules, irradiation of thorium to produce uranium-233 and construction of devices, production of neptunium and americium from processing waste, early waste encapsulation projects, starting in 1965, the sodium-cooled fast-flux test reactor operated from 1980 through 1993, and decades of poorly protected storage of unreprocessed, irradiated fuel from the N-reactor, from a commercial power-plant and from the fast-flux test reactor. [8] [47]

Plutonium-producing reactors at Hanford were all graphite-moderated--scaled up from "Chicago Pile 1" built by Enrico Fermi's group at Stagg Field in 1942 and the subsequent X-10 reactor at Oak Ridge. To those designs, they added water cooling pumped through aluminum tubes around metallic uranium slugs. Graphite made it possible to operate with natural uranium. Aluminum cans were used to package uranium slugs for the first eight reactors. Zirconium cladding, still used in power reactors, was developed for the N-reactor. [48]

Aside from reactors, the major production facilities at Hanford were chemical reprocessing "canyon" plants, which extracted plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel as liquids and pastes, and the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which converted the chemicals to metal "buttons." During World War II, the T-plant and B-plant operated the original bismuth phosphate process to extract plutonium. Hanford dried the chemical paste in the Z-plant and shipped that to Los Alamos, where early weapons were produced. The finishing plant opened in 1949 to produce plutonium metal, replacing the Z-plant drying facility. [48]

Several process development and research laboratories were built at Hanford from the late 1940s through the early 1950s. The C-plant opened in 1952, using the newer REDOX process. The U-plant, never used during the war, opened in 1952 for uranium recovery. The PUREX plant, opened in 1956, greatly increased productivity, and older chemical reprocessing plants were closed. In 1954 Hanford started shipping plutonium to Rocky Flats, and in 1957 the design of N-reactor began. It was the last Hanford production reactor. Using some elements similar to those of modern power reactors, including a steam generator, it was rated at 0.8 GW, electrical, and became the world's largest power reactor for several years. The period from 1943 through 1964 saw high investment in Hanford, much development of new facilities and large outputs of materials for nuclear weapons. [48]

Inside a few government agencies, but mostly kept hidden from the public until the 1980s, gross environmental insults at Hanford were an open secret. A trickle of information emerged in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and from a few activist organizations, but it rarely appeared in general-interest news media. [2] Until the late 1980s, the major changes occurred during the Lyndon Johnson and the Nixon administrations. Although couched to the public in jingo terms common for the day, the Johnson administration aimed 1964 cutbacks in nuclear materials production mostly at the problem-ridden Hanford plant, knowing the better managed Savannah River plant could backstop any shortage. [49] In 1971, when trying to reduce federal spending, the Nixon administration ordered all the Hanford reactors permanently closed as an economy measure, declaring them "unreliable." Pressure led to reactivation of the N-reactor later that year as a power plant. [8] [50]

The period from 1965 through 1990 saw little new development and rapidly declining outputs at Hanford. Reactors D, DR, F and H were closed in the wake of the 1964 cutbacks. By 1970, the eight oldest Hanford reactors were either shut down or on standby--never to run again. Reactors B, C, KE and KW were closed or kept closed by the 1971 cutbacks. The N-reactor continued operation until 1986, but much of the uranium irradiated after 1971 was stored at the K-reactors and never processed to extract plutonium. N-reactor was shut down in 1986, after the Chernobyl disaster led to doubts about the stability of its graphite-moderated design. [8] [47] [48]

The 1964 message was not lost on General Electric, which had taken over management of Hanford from DuPont soon after the end of World War II. "Generous Electric" then advertised a slogan interpreted by cynics as [Profit] "is our Most Important Product." Since profit at Hanford was to become in short supply, GE rapidly backed away. By 1965 it had turned over industrial medicine, then reactor operations and chemical processing operations to Hanford Occupational Health, to Douglas United and to Isochem, respectively. After 1967, Hanford effectively had no full-charge industrial manager, only managers of individual operations--a situation that persisted until most operations had been shut down and Westinghouse took over from nominal site manager Rockwell in 1987. [51]

For the United States at large, the early 1960s through the early 1970s saw a great awakening of environmental concerns and regulation. However, the 20-year de-facto experiment with matrix management at Hanford proved disastrous for environmental concerns there. As illustrated in Paul Loeb's 1982 book, job preservation took over as the ruling principle for both management and workforce. [52] Workers reporting problems usually found themselves shunned as community enemies. For many years, the few workers who covertly confided in legislators and reporters were almost the only source of public knowledge about problems at Hanford. [53] Any would-be whistleblowers in the nuclear weapons plants were at risk, because plant employees and contractors were not covered by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, Public Law 95-454, although some of them seem to have thought they were. [54]

While local and regional news occasionally reported mishaps at nuclear weapons plants, concerns did not spread widely until an extended series of New York Times articles beginning in October, 1988. [55] The articles helped create a climate of opinion that led former Pres. Herbert Bush to appoint retired Adm. James Watkins Secretary of Energy. Mr. Watkins soon announced plans to clean up the weapons plants. [56] However, there was little government support for whistleblowers until Hazel O'Leary's term as Secretary of Energy during the first Clinton administration, 1993-1997. In 1994 she organized a conference featuring 14 of them. [57 p. 83] She had appointed one, Casey Ruud, federal manager of high-level nuclear waste at Hanford. [58]

Except for the N-reactor, Hanford's reactors used once-through cooling. Columbia River water was filtered, treated with additives, passed through the reactors and discharged into soil or returned to the river. That approach loaded the environment with hexavalent chromium, added as a corrosion inhibitor, and with radioactive contamination from activation products, notably phosphorus-32, and fuel slugs compromised by damage or by pinholes in the cans. [46] By 1990, when they were all shut down, Hanford's reactors had discharged over 400 billion gallons of contaminated water into the environment. There were additional discharges of contaminated washwater from processing plants. [8] [47]

Government and other reviews that began in the late 1980s outlined major environmental insults at Hanford and persecution of workers who had tried to report them. [59] [60] [61] [62] [63] Unlike most comparable high-level radioactive waste-storage tanks at Savannah River, none of the 149 single-wall tanks built at Hanford from the 1940s through the 1960s had protective pans around them. The Hanford tanks were more lightly built than most of the Savannah River tanks and more varied in size. They have four capacities ranging from 55,000 to 1,000,000 gallons. The 28 double-wall tanks built in the 1970s and 1980s have 1,160,000 gallon capacity. [64] The first tank leak was reported in 1956 and confirmed in 1958. [8] Estimated leakage has been enormous. By 1989, around the time all production facilities were shut down, at least a million gallons of liquid high-level radioactive waste had already been discharged into soil and groundwater. [65]

Hanford is currently engaged in its fourth attempt at packaging high-level radioactive waste. Starting around 1958 it experimented with spray calcining but did not develop a pilot plant. From 1965 to 1971, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operated a pilot-scale project evaluating calcining and encapsulation in glass. In 1975, another pilot project tried variations of the techniques. [66] That and the vitrification development underway at Savannah River were background for a so-called "Tri-Party Agreement." In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington (state) Department of Ecology agreed to cooperate toward a goal of cleaning up the Hanford site in 30 years. At that time there were no reliable assessments of the major problems at Hanford and no proven technologies to cope with the worst of them. The U.S. government committed to spend $2.8 billion on Hanford remediation over the next five years. [67]

The 1989 revolution did change outlooks of some Hanford workers, who began to see environmental concerns as opportunities rather than threats. In 1990, the local newspaper editorialized, "Huge community resources and tremendous amounts of dwindling political currency have been expended to preserve a defense mission for Hanford. It isn't working and likely won't." [68] A proposal to reopen the PUREX plant was shelved by the Department of Energy in 1990, pending review of the accumulation of irradiated but unreprocessed reactor fuel. Permanent shutdown of the N-reactor was announced the next year. Congress extended whistleblower protection to employees of nuclear weapons plants in the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Public Law 102-486, Section 2902, but only for claims after October 23, 1992, leaving several earlier whistleblowers in the lurch.

Then began a pattern of delays in meeting remediation goals for Hanford that continues to the present. Some goals are not achieved because they were too optimistic, but many are missed for other reasons. In March, 1993, the (then) General Accounting Office objected that the Department of Energy had tested far fewer samples of Hanford's radioactive waste than were needed to find out whether its vitrification process would work. [69] Because of its complex history, Hanford's wastes contain chemicals not found at Savannah River, some of which could interfere with the Savannah River technology.

The Washington (state) Department of Ecology also had issues and tossed a particularly pesky fly into the ointment. As at Savannah River, Department of Energy plans for Hanford were to separate the contents of the waste tanks into high-level and medium-level streams, vitrify the high-level stream and mix the medium-level stream into concrete to make "saltstone." Unlike its counterpart in South Carolina, the Washington state agency showed some independence--objecting that hazardous substances to be immobilized in saltstone, including iodine-129 and technetium-99, were both highly mobile and long-lived. Saltstone would not retain them reliably and would degrade and release them into the environment while their activities remained dangerous. [69 p. 31]

The Department of Energy claimed it would go ahead with Hanford's vitrification plant anyway and reserve judgement about saltstone. However, in October, 1993, timelines of the 1989 agreement were officially slid forward with a farrago of excuses, in the first of many such maneuvers. More significantly, the department as run by Ms. O'Leary abandoned plans for saltstone at Hanford and agreed to employ a vitrification process for the medium-level stream of its tank waste. [70 p. 13] The department had no such technology ready to deploy. As of 2013, it has maintained the use of saltstone for waste disposal at Savannah River, even though the hazards there are similar and the climate there is likely to degrade saltstone faster than at Hanford.

It might seem obvious that huge, uncontrolled discharges of chemical and radioactive contamination were likely to reach aquifers and migrate toward the Columbia River, which flows through the 586-square-mile site. However, for more than 40 years after the first report of a tank leak, Hanford managers maintained a rigid state of denial. [71] In 1997, consultants for the Department of Energy confirmed massive leaks reaching aquifers and said that contamination could reach the Columbia River in as little as 20 years. [72] A Department of Energy remediation plan ten years later conceded that plumes of contamination had already reached the river--releasing strontium-90, tritium, uranium, hexavalent chromium and other hazardous substances. [73] Data and analyses contributing to that plan have been pilloried as woefully inaccurate and optimistic. [74]

In 2011, the contractor currently responsible for groundwater cleanup at Hanford stated that groundwater pollution violating drinking water standards had spread under 80 square miles of the site. [75] The volume of the vadose zone alone, between the top of groundwater and the land surface, is around 3,000 billion gallons. Removing contaminants by elution--pumping and purifying--could require treatment of a similar volume of contaminated water. As of 2013, Department of Energy contractors reported treating groundwater at about 1-1/2 billion gallons per year. [76] While that might sound impressive, taken out of context, removing most of the contamination under the Hanford site at that rate could take 2,000 years or more--unless accurate surveys and effective isolation techniques can greatly reduce the soil volume to be treated.

Airborne radioactivity dispersed into the surrounding region has received episodic attention. The B-plant and T-plant reprocessing canyons, built in the mid-1940s, lacked exhaust filters of any kind. Over half a million Curies of iodine-131 were released to the atmosphere as vapor during Hanford operations from 1944 through 1948--plus aerosols bearing strontium-90, cesium-137 and other, shorter-lived radionuclides. They were emitted most abundantly while irradiated uranium slugs were being dissolved in strong acids. Air monitoring showed the city of Pasco, southeast of the reprocessing plants, to be heavily affected. [77, pp. 78-82] Enhanced release of iodine-131 during the now strongly criticized "Green Run" of 1949 amounted to only around a percent of total discharges to the atmosphere during Hanford's first five years of operations. [77, pp. 90-92]

The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project--begun by the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 1992--was to estimate, measure and document human radiation exposures and environmental contamination in eastern Washington, western Idaho and northeastern Oregon. However, after a surge of lawsuits stimulated by its "initial" report in 1990, the project went into hibernation, and it never conducted radiological surveys outside the Hanford site. [78] [79] [80]

A waste-vitrification facility has been under construction at Hanford since 2005, using processes developed at Savannah River and modifications developed at Hanford. It is currently projected to operate by 2022, but it almost certainly won't. [81] Under the original 1989 agreement, the plant, treating the high-level stream only, was to operate by 1999. There is no current credible estimate for the full duration or cost of Hanford cleanup. So far, the Environmental Management program at the Department of Energy has spent about $150 billion cleaning up U.S. nuclear weapons plants, in 2013 dollars. [82] No public, long-range accounting for the program appears to be maintained anywhere within the U.S. government.

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