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America’s Fukushima? via Newsweek

At Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery in Richland, Wash., you can feast on a “Reactor Core” pizza, made with “spicy nuclear butter,” wash it down with a Half-Life Hefeweizen or an Atomic Amber, and finish your meal with Plutonium Porter Chocolate Containment Cake. Later you might have at some pins at Atomic Bowl, the “Home of Nuclear Bowling,” or catch a Richland High School football game, the team’s name – Bombers – looming over the field, a mushroom cloud logo on the scoreboard.

The town’s pervasive dark humor alludes to a darker past – and a troubling, radioactive present. The plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki came from what’s known today as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, around which Richland grew and thrived. During the Cold War, Hanford churned out plutonium for our nuclear arsenal. Then the Soviet threat ended, and the residents in this corner of eastern Washington were left with what is routinely called the most toxic place in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, it is not a Soviet missile that threatens this once-pristine high desert. If disaster strikes Richland, it will be because the federal government (namely, the Department of Energy) allowed 56 million gallons of radioactive waste to fester in this sandy soil, where some say it is rife for an explosion. And, critics charge, the DOE has watched its prime contractor on the site, Bechtel, grossly overcharge the American public for a waste-treatment plant so poorly built that, once it’s finished (if it ever gets finished), feeding nuclear material through it could cause a catastrophe.

A poster from the recent Occupy Portland protests called Hanford “North America’s Fukushima.” That isn’t just left-wing, anti-corporate fear mongering – a catastrophic accident involving radioactive waste scares the two most prominent Hanford whistle-blowers, nuclear engineer Walter L. Tamosaitis, fired from the site last month, and Donna Busche, a nuclear safety compliance officer who remains employed by URS, a Hanford subcontractor, even as her legal complaints – which include allegations of everything from pressure to downplay safety concerns to sexual harassment – proceed. Unprompted, Busche told Newsweek she is worried about “when ‘Fukushima Day’ hits.”

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Vast and vastly radioactive, Hanford has some 1,000 separate waste sites of varying size, according to John M. Zachara, senior chief scientist for environmental chemistry at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. These include a plume of hexavalent chromium – the carcinogenic villain in Erin Brockovich – moving towards the Columbia, the Northwest’s largest river, as well as technetium-99, which has also seeped into the groundwater, in addition to uranium, beryllium, and other wastes, both radioactive and not. The technetium has a half-life (the length of time it will take for half of the element to decay) of 212,000 years, meaning it’s pretty much around until the proverbial end of time.

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Even worse, the accumulation of nuclear material in Hanford’s tanks could create highly combustible hydrogen gas pockets. “You get enough [hydrogen] and some spark source and you get an explosion,” MIT nuclear engineer Michael Golay told Scientific American, explaining what had precipitated Fukushima and Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear accident in United States history.

An outright nuclear explosion is highly unlikely, but possible. The radioactive material at the bottom of the mixing tanks could cause the splitting of radioactive atoms known as fission, similar to what happens in a nuclear bomb (blessedly, on a much smaller scale). That would be an unspeakable disaster, one that would almost certainly endanger workers at the Pre-Treatment Plant, while also shutting down the site. It might not kill a lot of people, but it would cost hundreds of millions dollars and take years to clean up.

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Nobody really knows if Hanford has made people sick. Locals refer to the “Hanford necklace” – “a thyroidectomy scar that distinguishes many of the downwinders whose diseased thyroid glands were removed,” as the Associated Press once described it. Yet the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study did not find an association between the release of iodine-131 during the 1940s and 1950s and an increase in cancers of the thyroid gland, thus discounting a major illness related with radiation exposure.

That is only one cancer dismissed, however, and maladies from the past aren’t the most pressing concern here anyway. It’s what remains in the ground that worries the likes of Carpenter, the Seattle watchdog. He says of Hanford: “We’ve opened a Pandora’s box that we can’t put the lid back on.” Behind him, the city settles comfortably into dusk.

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The Man Without Friends

Whistle-blowers are, by definition, shrill – they shout in our ears, telling us things we don’t want to hear, but need to hear. Tamosaitis was not a federal worker, so he could not seek protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act. He filed a complaint with the Department of Labor on July 31, 2010, but was quickly disheartened by the federal bureaucracy. “Things seemed very dark,” he said in his congressional testimony. “The more I learned, the more helpless I felt.” Thus, that September, he filed lawsuits against Bechtel, in state court, and URS and the DOE, in federal court.

Tamosaitis does not like the term whistle-blower, which he thinks most people equate with troublemaker. Nevertheless, he says, “I’ve grown used to it.” Tall and wide, he seems to diminish in size as he describes the challenges ahead, not to mention those of the past three years.

Read more at America’s Fukushima?

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